Category Archives: Innovation

Progress and Innovation according to Arthur Lochmann

Magnificent book again, La Vie solide (The Solid Life) by Arthur Lochmann that comes at the right moment when France asks the question of repairing the frame of Notre Dame. Starting on page 182, he makes a brilliant analysis of heritage and innovation. He talks about duration and time, which immediately made me think of all the activities I took years to master (venture capital, research on startups, more personal hobbies on Street Art). Without duration, no mastering. Here are my last (translated) excerpts from this beautiful book.

At the other end of the spectrum wriggles innovation. In a few decades, this has replaced the idea of progress in public discourse. The success of the rhetoric of innovation is one of the most palpable expressions of the phenomenon of acceleration of time in modern space. Today we speak of disruption to denote radical innovations that have the effect of breaking existing social structures. As Bernard Stiegler puts it in a recent work [1], this disruption has as an operating principle going faster than society without giving it time to adapt. […] As the author summarizes, for the “lords of the economic war […] it is a question of going faster than societies to impose on them models that destroy their social structures”. How not to go crazy: this is the subtitle of this book which focuses on the effects on individuals and social groups in the nihilist desert that is born of these constant mutations.
The physicist and philosopher Etienne Klein compared the conceptions of time that underlie notions of progress and innovation respectively. Progress, a structuring perspective since the Enlightenment, is based on the idea of a constructing time, “an accomplice of our freedom”. The future is credible and desirable; it is this that allows us to make sacrifices of personal time now to make possible a better collective future. Innovation, on the other hand, projects a completely different conception of time: it is corruptible, it damages things. This was already the case before the Enlightenment, especially for Bacon, for whom the notion of innovation meant the small modifications necessary to preserve the situation as it is. This is again the case today, in a slightly different way: facing the ongoing climate catastrophe, who is still able to imagine any future? In short, innovation is the notion that has taken the place of progress when it has become impossible to think of a future. Like heritage, but in an inverted way, it’s a form of immobilization in the present. In short, heritage conservation and the cult of innovation are two aspects of one and the same thing: the abolition of duration by the advent of a time that has been left out. [Pages 185-7]

“A liquid society is one in which the contexts of action of its members change in less time than it takes for the modes of action to freeze in habits and routines,” wrote Zygmunt Bauman in La Vie liquide (The Liquid Life) [2]. In the capitalism of innovation, every day brings new changes. Social structures, as well as friendly and loving bonds, have lost their former rigidity to become fluid. Everything is always going on and time is running out to be a present without perspective. The paradoxical effect of acceleration is the petrification of time and the erasure of duration. [Page 191]

It is no coincidence that the figure of the craftsman has seen in recent years a return to grace, both on the side of social criticism by a Richard Sennett or by a Matthew B. Crawford and with enthusiasts that are the makers of the fablabs or the “firsts of the class” in reconversion. First of all, because the craftsmanship is very alive and constantly shatters the apparent opposition between tradition and modernity. On a construction site, there is no choice between old techniques and new ones. There is always a clever mix of each other. The practice of the frame, in particular, teaches us that being at the forefront of modernity does not mean giving up centuries-old techniques. The knowledge of the past is not outdated; it is enriched by new methods of work, and sometimes even by older ones that are rediscovered. [Pages 193-4]

[1] Bernard Stiegler, Dans la disruption : Comment ne pas devenir fou ? Paris, Les liens qui libèrent, 2016.
[2] Zygmunt Bauman, La Vie liquide, translated by Christophe Rosson, Paris, Albin Michel, 2013, p. 7 (modified translation)

Augmented humans, diminished humankind – From Alzheimer’s to transhumanism, science serving a mercantile and hegemonic ideology

Following a recent post about critics of technosciences and a much older one about the failed promises of science, here is a very short post about a (very good) book written in French and not (yet) translated in English: Homme augmenté, humanité diminuéeD’Alzheimer au transhumanisme, la science au service d’une idéologie hégémonique mercantile (Augmented humans, diminished humankind – From Alzheimer’s to transhumanism, science serving a mercantile and hegemonic ideology.)

The author begins with his personal story, how his mother suffered and died from this terrible Alzheimer’s disease. Then he began to inquire about it and his doubts began to grow. We do not have to agree with everything author Philippe Baqué says, but we cannot avoid having the same doubts about where and how science and innovation drive us all. I hope these three short extracts will create the same reaction I felt:

[Page 71] Jean Maisondieu, a psychiatrist and author of Crépuscule de la Raison, la maladie d’Alzheimer en question (Sunset of reason, Alzheimer’s disease in question), often claims that Alzheimer’s disease does not exist, but the Alzheimer’s patients do exist for sure.

[Page 74] I reached the conlusion that patients are demented mostly because they were dying of fear, at the idea of death. The brains of Alzheimer’s patients might be altered, but these patients are mostly sick of fear.

[Page 260] I feel the need to ask the question again: what is transhumanism? An economic and political lobby? A technoreligion? A new eugenic ideology? The biggest science fraud of the 21st century?

Worth thinking about it… Is aging a disease? Is death a disease?

Gandhi and Technology, according to Bertrand Jarrige

A second post about the excellent Technocritiques – Du refus des machines à la contestation des technosciences after that one: Techno-critics according to François Jarrige. Jarrige surprises me by giving Gandhi‘s views on technology. Fascinating. I (in Fact Goodle translate was a great supporting tool…) translated his full account that you could read in French on pages 192-195.

No one better illustrates the ambivalence of the relationship to technology in the colonial world than Gandhi. If indeed he uses a simple traditional spindle to weave his clothes, he travels by train and uses a watch. The figure of Gandhi deserves attention because criticism of the machine occupies a central place in his speech and action. But if his successors and followers have venerated him for his contribution to India’s political independence, they have rarely taken seriously his criticism of the technical surge and his proposal to restore the local indigenous economy. For Gandhi (1869-1958), the “machine civilization” and the big industry created a daily and invisible slavery that impoverished entire sections of the population despite the myth of global abundance. While some reduce Gandhian thought to a set of frustrated and simplistic principles, others see it as a rich “moral economy”, distinct from both the liberal tradition and Marxism [1].

Born in 1869 in the state of Gujarat, while British rule over India grew and the railway network expanded, Gandhi went to England to study law in 1888, like hundreds of young upper caste Indians. After 1893, he went to South Africa, where he thrived as a lawyer and woke up to politics in contact with racial discrimination. He gradually developed a method of non-violent civil disobedience that will make his celebrity and organize the struggle of the Indian community. On his return to India, after 1915, he organized the protest against the taxes considered too high, and more generally against the discriminations and the colonial laws. During the inter-war period, as a leader of the Indian National Congress, Gandhi led a campaign to help the poor, to liberate Indian women, to encourage fraternity among communities of different religions or ethnicities, for an end of untouchability and discrimination of castes, and for the economic self-sufficiency of the nation, but especially for Swaraj – the independence of India with respect to any foreign domination.

In 1909, Gandhi wrote one of his rare theoretical texts in the form of a Socratic dialogue with a young Indian revolutionary. This text, Hind Swaraj, written in Gujarati before being translated into English, aims first at detaching Indian youth from the most violent fringes of the nationalist movement [2]. The book was banned until 1919. According to Gandhi, these young revolutionaries are indeed the victims of a blind veneration of technical progress and brutal force imported from the Western world. He is therefore gradually extending his political criticism of the industrial and technological civilization itself. Gandhian thought is based on a sharp criticism of Western modernity in all its forms. On the political front, he criticizes the State and defends the ideal of a non-violent democratic society, made up of federated villages and based on the call for voluntary simplicity. He denounces the notions of development and civilization, and the technical surge that founds them, as sources of inequality and of multiple perverse effects. According to Gandhi, “the machine allows a small minority to live on the exploitation of the masses […] indeed the force that moves this minority is not humanity or the love of the like, but envy and greed “. Political autonomy is therefore futile if it is not accompanied by a profound questioning of modern industrial civilization. “It would be foolish,” says Gandhi, “to say that an Indian Rockefeller would be better than an American Rockefeller,” and “we do not have to look forward to the growth of the manufacturing industry.” Gandhi defends the development of self-sufficient local crafts within the framework of village autonomy and a limitation of needs.

Gandhi belongs neither to the Indian neotraditionalist currents that consider the ancient Hindu civilization as intrinsically superior, nor to the camp of the modernizing nationalists seeking to copy the Western world to turn its weapons against the colonial order. He intends to define a third original way. Gandhian thought feeds on multiple sources. In a way, it belongs to the anti-modernist current that developed in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century. He read William Morris and John Ruskin, and was marked by the anarchistic Christianity of Tolstoy [3]. His vision of the world feeds on the intellectual atmosphere of the end of the Victorian era and the ethical and aesthetic critique of the technical and industrial surge that was then developing. Gandhi is neither hostile to science nor anti-rationalist, as it is sometimes written. He first criticizes the way in which scientific discoveries and the use of reason are applied and put at the service of the powerful and exploitation. He criticizes the blind faith of the Western wolrd in material progress and the desire for power embodied in technical surge. He also wants to save England from its own demons. According to him, “mechanization has impoverished India”; it turns factory workers into “slaves”. It is not by “reproducing Manchester in India” that Indians will emancipate themselves from British rule. One of the particularly powerful technical bases of British rule is precisely the development of the railroad: “Without the railroads, the British could not have such a stranglehold on India. “Supposedly to liberate the Indian people, the rail is actually used primarily by the power as an effective tool of mesh and domination.” The railways have also increased the frequency of famines because, given the ease of transportation, people sell their grain and it is sent to the most expensive market” instead of being self-consumed or sold on the closest market. Gandhi tries to link his criticism of big industry and European technologies to his project of political emancipation. It shows that progress leads to a worsening of living conditions, that “civilization” permanently creates new needs that are impossible to satisfy, that it digs inequalities and immerses part of humanity in slavery. For him, this type of civilization is hopeless. The mechanization and globalization of trade is a disaster for India, the mills of Manchester having destroyed the craft industry and the world of Indian weavers: “The machinist civilization will not stop making victims. Its effects are deadly: people let themselves be attracted to it and burn themselves like butterflies in the flame of a candle. It breaks all ties with religion and in fact only derives tiny benefits from the world. [The machinist] Civilization flatters us to better drink our blood. When the effects of this civilization are fully known, we will realize that religious (traditional) superstition is harmless in comparison to that which nimbuses modern civilization.

Gandhian criticism of machinery intrigues much in the inter-war period. It is reflected in his economic program based on the defense of village industries as in its project to “de-mechanize the textile industry”, which appears immediately unrealistic and unrealizable. Moreover, Gandhi’s positions went from total opposition to European machines to a more nuanced criticism: in October 1924, to the question of a journalist, “Are you against all machines?” He replies: “How could I be … [I am] against indiscriminate craze for machines, and not machines as such”. He also rises against those who accuse him of wanting to “destroy all machines”: “My goal is not to destroy the machine but to impose limits on it”, that is to say to control its uses so that it does not affect the natural environments or the situation of the poorest. He ultimately develops a philosophy of limits and control of technological gigantism.

But this discourse provoked a lot of misunderstanding and was gradually erased as a reliquat of obscurantist tradition. The Socialists and with them Nehru himself in his autobiography published in 1936, lament that Gandhi “blessed the relics of the old order”. His analysis of industrial technology was soon marginalized to the independence of the country by the forced modernization project. But Gandhi’s figure also exerted considerable fascination far beyond the Indian peasantry. In the inter-war period, his criticism became a source of inspiration for social movements and thinkers from very different horizons, even as criticism of the “machine civilization” was growing in Europe.

[1] Kazuya Ishi, The socio-economic thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi as an origin of alternative development, Review of Social Economy, vol. LIX, 2001, p. 198 ; Majid Rahnema and Jean Robert, La Puissance des pauvres, Actes Sud, Arles, 2008.
[2] Hind Swaraj, translated in English as Indian Home Rule, and later in French with title Leur Civilisation et notre délivrance, Denoël, Paris, 1957.
[3] Ramin Jahanbegloo, Gandhi. Aux sources de la non-violence, Thoreau, Ruskin, Tolstoï, Editions du Felin, Paris, 1998.

Techno-critics according to François Jarrige

I write from time to time and perhaps even more often about this other fact of innovation and entrepreneurship (which remains my passion, positively), a face that is darker, more negative, a vision that is more critical of the impact of innovation on society. I read these days, in French, Technocritiques – Du refus des machines à la contestation des technosciences (Technocritics – From the refusal of the machines to the challenge of the technosciences) by François Jarrige. It is a rich, harsh, demanding but exceptional book for all those interested in the subject.

Even if extremely critical at first sight, the book shows that the positive and negative aspects of progress have always developed in parallel. My closest reading of this work was probably that of Bernard Stiegler, In Disruption – How Not to Go Crazy? without forgetting the works of Libero Zuppiroli, such as The utopias of the 21st century. Thanks to him for mentioning this remarkable book.

Here is a full translation of a long and exciting passage on pages 87-88. It looks like it describes our world, it does describe an older one.

“If we were to characterize our time by a single epithet, we would not call it a heroic, religious, philosophical, or moral age; but the mechanical age, for that is what distinguishes it from all the others.” [1] Carlyle embodies the romantic denunciation of “mammonism” (that is, the religious worship of the god Silver), whose mechanical surge of his time is one of the manifestations. Why always strive, thanks to mechanics, to sell “at a lower price than all other nations until the end of the world”, why not “sell for equal price”, he asks? [2] He invites “ingenious men” to find a way to distribute products more equitably rather than always looking for ways to achieve them at the lowest cost: “A world of simple patented digesters will soon have nothing to eat: such a world will be extinguished and by the law of nature it must be extinguished.”

At the same time, Michelet, the great French romantic historian, discovered the gigantism of machinery during a trip to England in 1834. He also describes the ambivalence of the effects of machines. Impressed by the “beings of steel” who enslave “the being of blood and flesh”, he is nevertheless convinced that one will continue to prefer to the “uniform fabrications of the machines the various products which bear the imprint of the human personality”. If the machine is undeniably a “powerful agent of democratic progress” by “putting a host of useful objects within the reach of the poorest”, it also has its terrible setback: it creates a “miserable little people of men-machines that live half [and] that engender only for death “. [3]

The anxiety about machinery diminished in the Victorian era, with the expansion of the prosperity of the imperial period, the decline of workers’ violence, the rise of the political economy. However, it continues to arouse the fears of some moralists, such as John Stuart Mill, a complex radical thinker, a liberal fascinated by socialism and a feminist justifying imperialism. In his Principles of Political Economy (1848), Mill proposes an inventory of the political economy of his time. He distances himself from economists who are overly optimistic about technical change, expresses reluctance about the beneficial effects of the division of labor and considers that the state must compensate for the detrimental effects of mechanization. But his criticism goes beyond these classic questions because John Stuart Mill proposes a theory of the “stationary state” that breaks with classical economics. He describes this “stationary state of capital and wealth” as “preferable to our present situation”, marked by the struggle of all against all. He sees it as a world shaped by “prudence” and “frugality,” in which society is composed of “a large and well-paid body of workers” and “few enormous fortunes”; this “stationary” world, where everyone would have enough to live, would leave room for solitude and contemplation “of the beauties and grandeur of nature”. In this world, the “industrial arts” would obviously not stop, but “instead of having no other goal than the acquisition of wealth, the improvements would reach their goal, which is the diminution of work. [4]

To be followed, maybe …

Sources:

[1] Thomas Carlyle, “Signs of the Times,” Edinburgh Review vol. 49, 1829, p. 439-459
“Were we required to characterise this age of ours by any single epithet, we should be tempted to call it, not an Heroical, Devotional, Philosophical, or Moral Age, but, above all others, the Mechanical Age. It is the Age of Machinery, in every outward and inward sense of that word; the age which, with its whole undivided might, forwards, teaches and practises the great art of adapting means to ends.”
http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/carlyle/signs1.html

[2] Thomas Carlyle, “Past and Present” (1843), Cathédrales d’autrefois et usines d’aujourd’hui. Passé et présent, fr. transl. of Camille Bos, Editions of the Revue Blanche, Paris, 1920, p.289
I admire a Nation which fancies it will die if it do not undersell all other Nations, to the end of the world. Brothers, we will cease to undersell them; we will be content to equal-sell them; to be happy selling equally with them! I do not see the use of underselling them. A world of mere Patent-Digesters will soon have nothing to digest: such world ends, and by Law of Nature must end, in ‘over-population;’
P. 229-31, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/26159/26159-h/26159-h.htm

[3] Jules Michelet, “Le peuple”. Flammarion. Paris, 1974 [1846]

[4] John Stuart Mill, “Principles of Political Economy,” fr. transl. Léon Roquet, Paris 1894 [1848] Pages 138-142.

Creativity according to Isaac Asimov

While travelling in the USA in January, I was mentioned a 1959 Essay by Isaac Asimov on Creativity “How Do People Get New Ideas?”.


Isaac Asimov by Andy Friedman (Source: MIT Technology Review)

I have always been skeptical about how to teach creativity or even how to encourage it. I felt very much in agreement with what Asimov had written way back 60 years ago. Let me quote him:

– the method of generation [of ideas] is never clear even to the “generators” themselves,

– what is needed is not only people with a good background in a particular field, but also people capable of making a connection between item 1 and item 2 which might not ordinarily seem connected,

– once the cross-connection is made, it becomes obvious,

– making the cross-connection requires a certain daring,

– a person willing to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense must be a person of considerable self-assurance; since (s)he occurs only rarely, (s)he must seem eccentric (in at least that respect) to the rest of us,

– my feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required; the creative person is, in any case, continually working at it; his (her) mind is shuffling information at all times, even when (s)he is not conscious of it,

– the presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing; nevertheless, a meeting of such people may be desirable for reasons other than the act of creation itself,

– the optimum number of the group [i.e. such people just before] would probably not be very high. I should guess that no more than five would be wanted.

This is quite fascinating: according to Asimov, creativity is an isolated act; making connections possible maybe helped by small groups, but even this, Asimov is not totally convinced of… I have often read interesting articles about creativity in art, science, technology and the idea that freedom to think combined with obsession to solve or do something might be much more critical than social interactions.

A New Yorker article about 2 Google developers : The Friendship That Made Google Huge

The New Yorker just published a beautiful article abotu two google developers. The Friendship That Made Google Huge is subtitled Coding together at the same computer, Jeff Dean and Sanjay Ghemawat changed the course of the company—and the Internet.


The company’s top coders seem like two halves of a single mind.
Illustration by David Plunkert

Here are some extracts:

Sanjay Ghemawat, [is] a quiet thirty-three-year-old M.I.T. graduate with thick eyebrows and black hair graying at the temples. Sanjay had joined the company only a few months earlier, in December. He’d followed a colleague of his—a rangy, energetic thirty-one-year-old named Jeff Dean—from Digital Equipment Corporation. Jeff had left D.E.C. ten months before Sanjay. They were unusually close, and preferred to write code jointly. In the war room, Jeff rolled his chair over to Sanjay’s desk, leaving his own empty. Sanjay worked the keyboard while Jeff reclined beside him, correcting and cajoling like a producer in a news anchor’s ear.

[…]

Today, Google’s engineers exist in a Great Chain of Being that begins at Level 1. At the bottom are the I.T. support staff. Level 2s are fresh out of college; Level 3s often have master’s degrees. Getting to Level 4 takes several years, or a Ph.D. Most progression stops at Level 5. Level 6 engineers—the top ten per cent—are so capable that they could be said to be the reason a project succeeds; Level 7s are Level 6s with a long track record. Principal Engineers, the Level 8s, are associated with a major product or piece of infrastructure. Distinguished Engineers, the Level 9s, are spoken of with reverence. To become a Google Fellow, a Level 10, is to win an honor that will follow you for life. Google Fellows are usually the world’s leading experts in their fields. Jeff and Sanjay are Google Senior Fellows—the company’s first and only Level 11s.

And more about dual creativity. Quite fascinating!

It took Monet and Renoir, working side by side in the summer of 1869, to develop the style that became Impressionism; during the six-year collaboration that gave rise to Cubism, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque would often sign only the backs of their canvases, to obscure which of them had completed each painting.
[…]
In “Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs,” the writer Joshua Wolf Shenk quotes from a 1971 interview in which John Lennon explained that either he or Paul McCartney would “write the good bit, the part that was easy, like ‘I read the news today’ or whatever it was.” One of them would get stuck until the other arrived—then, Lennon said, “I would sing half, and he would be inspired to write the next bit and vice versa.”
[…]
François Jacob, who, with Jacques Monod, pioneered the study of gene regulation, noted that by the mid-twentieth century most research in the growing field of molecular biology was the result of twosomes.

You should read the article…

What Is Innovation?

So what is innovation? I had already addressed the question in 2015 in Invention, Entrepreneurship and Innovation. My colleague Federico gave me a few days ago another definition of Innovation from MIT’s Bill Aulet.

Innovation = Invention ∗ Commercialization

You will find the video here.

And here some extracts:

So could it have been “Innovation equals invention?” No, often people mistake these two things for the same thing. They are not. Innovation is something that generates value for the world. It makes something faster, better, cheaper. It gives someone some great satisfaction. An invention is an idea, a technology, a patent. In and of itself, it does not generate value. So these two are not the same thing. And sometimes you see them interchange. And that’s not correct.

So innovation equals invention times commercialization. And when we look at this equation of innovation, something of value, it requires a new idea. And then, it requires someone or some organization that is going to commercialize that idea and to make it a value to the world. So it’s important to understand that an idea by itself is not valuable. Ideas are cheap. Is the commercialization when combined with it that makes them extraordinarily valuable. So while sometimes when I used to say invention plus commercialization, in fact, it’s times.

It’s a product because if I don’t have one, then it’s zero. Then, I have no innovation. If I have no new idea, I can’t commercialize anything. Therefore, it’s zero. If I have an invention and no commercialization, I have no innovation as well. So it’s actually a product. It’s, in fact, the commercialization aspect of it that’s very, very difficult.

If you look at the most innovative company in the world today, which I would argue is Apple, the underlying inventions that created Apple, great innovations starting with the Mac, did not come from themselves. It actually came from Xerox PARC. It was windows, icon, mouse, pointer. That invention, they commercialized to create innovation, which created terrific value in the marketplace and for their customers and for themselves, their investors as well. Likewise after that, you look again that the invention for the underlying and enabling idea, technology from the iPod was MP3, which did not come from Apple, again. That came from Fraunhofer. But what Apple was terrific at was commercialization to create innovation and, again, to create great value for their customers and their shareholders. So this definition of innovation we found very, very helpful to make clear that innovation is a combination of a new idea, a new technology. But then, it has to be commercialized and mapped to some customer in the real world where it will generate value.

Thanks Federico 🙂

XXIst Century Utopias according to Libero Zuppiroli

In his latest book, Les utopies du XXIe siècle (The Utopias of the 21st Century) Libero Zuppiroli makes an original presentation of what I call the excessive promises of innovation. I wrote recently a short chronicle about it in Enterprise Romande and Bernard Stiegler makes a much more pessimistic analysis in In the disruption – How not to go crazy? A third very interesting reference is the collective work Emerging Science and Technologies, why so many promises?

Libero Zuppiroli tackles the issue from the perspective of utopias and dystopias, using in the beginning of his book ancient authors of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, that show that excessive optimism has always existed and that its realistic, even pessimistic, counterpart has also always accompanied it. Flora Tristan in 1840 mirrors Sadi Carnot’s benefits of the machine in 1824, Marat in 1774 is paralleled to Adam Smith’s economic liberalism in 1776, and Francis Bacon, in 1627, dreamed of never ending scientific and technological progress. The utopian promises are not new!

It is a book that must be read and I will let you discover the analyses of the promises in the fields of information technology, robotics, defense, 3D printers and nanotechnologies, the city and energy, health, and big data. A simple illustration: around 2005, nanotechnologies were seen as an extremely promising market, which would reach 3’000 billion dollars in 10 years. More than 10 years later, the market is around $100 millions…

I fear, however, that Libero Zuppiroli does not have much illusions about the impact of his analyzes. In a note on critical authors (note 119, page 293), he writes, “He is one of these famous intellectual critics whom American society not only tolerates, but also encouraged the birth of. Their critic of the American system is harsh and based on remarkable analyzes, but those who possess the power know that, despite their international reputation, the audience of these intellectuals is limited to a small fraction of people already convinced. Whatever their talent, their influence on the masses of electors will always be much lower than that of teleevangelists.”

But I knew Libero Zuppiroli was playful and his conclusion confirms this to me: this Empire will collapse as previously collapsed the Roman, Napoleonic and Soviet Empires. When? Nobody knows … but it will collapse victim of its Hubris

PS (October 29, 2018): the reader may also be interested in another blog contribution: Dissecting the utopias of the 21st century by Diane Golay.

Virtual Innovations?

I had not contributed to Entreprise Romande for a while, which might be the reason of my somehow tiredness about the never ending flow of (virtual?) innovations. Here is my translation of my latest contribution…

When the editor of your favorite magazine asked me for a new contribution about innovation, offering me to write about bitcoin, artificial intelligence, data protection, GAFAs or China, I was the victim if not of a slight dizziness, at least of a certain weariness. I just had to add to this list Fake news, Trips to Mars or Replacement of Humans by Machines and my ongoing passion for startups and technological innovation turned into a light nightmare. It seems to me that the more we talk about innovation and the less we really innovate.

When I explain my slight skepticism to anybody, they usually start with the mention of replacing the cashier of the Migros (a “famous” chain of Swiss supermarkets) with a machine. I reply that it seems to me that we, buyers, have replaced the cashier. If the media relayed in 2011 Foxconn’s announcement that it wanted to install a million robots in 3 years, threatening the 1.2 million employees, an online search indicates today that it has a ability to install 10,000 robots a year, and still the same number of employees.

Silicon Valley, having been at the origin of the major innovations of the last fifty years, is scrutinized more attentively. Of course the GAFAs represent a real threat: the two A become the supermarket of the world while the G and F support them by advertisements based on data that we have kindly given them, putting them in a quasi-monopoly situation. But you read well, supermarket, advertising. And that is what is called major innovations?

And what about globalized venture capital? Softbank has announced the launch of a 100 billion fund, by far the largest ever. In the last two months, 10 internet startups (including Dropbox and Spotify) have announced their intention to go public. The figures are dizzying: they generated 10 billion in revenues and 2 billion losses in 2017, thanks to 4 billion of funds raised since their creation. Venture capital has become an infernal machine that, like China and the GAFAs, seems unstoppable. But the venture capital that financed in 1976 Genentech and Apple with a few millions today massively funds the “uberisation” of the world, new global supermarket, and less and less the “deeptech”. I see in these trends an accelerated globalization but few major innovations.

When I think of the innovations of tomorrow, I think of nuclear fusion that will solve our energy problems, research on AIDS or cancer that will rid us of these disasters as we have been able to get rid of previous diseases, I think of disruptive solutions for water, food, mobility. Tom Perkins, Silicon Valley’s big venture capitalist, thought that the innovations of our time were based on three major inventions, the steam engine, the electricity and especially the transistor that made possible all the technologies that seem to threaten us today. But where is the next invention? I recognize myself in Peter Thiel’s phrase: “We wanted flying cars; instead, we had 140 characters. ”

Do not get me wrong, the innovation flow was exceptional in the 20th century and developments continue. In biotechnology, the Crispr-CAS9 technology [1] is as promising as the genetic revolution of the 1970s. Three startups, Crispr Therapeutics, Intellia Therapeutics and Editas Medicine went public in 2016 and promise to cure 10,000 diseases. But today these three companies represent less than $70 million in revenue and more than 200 million in losses in 2017. We do not yet have gene therapy or personalized medicine. Google’s Alphago beat the best go player, but nasty voices ​​say that it’s only the largest computing power and the largest data storage of computers that has allowed such performance, and no particular invention or intelligence . In more complex contexts, the machine is not able to compete with humans. And what will really bring us the multiplication of Big Data? But the promises of some to politicians and others to their shareholders, amplified by the media, are sometimes an insult to intelligence: why parasitize the human spirit with promises of (virtual) innovations sometimes more “abracadabrantesque” one than the others and ultimately disappointing when the real world is sufficiently complex and exciting?

[1] https://www.investors.com/news/technology/crispr-gene-editing-biotech-companies/

March 8 – International Women’s Day

About to give my optimization class this morning, I just remembered only one woman got the Fields Medal. This was in 2014. Unfortunately she died of cancer last year

Maryam Mirzakhani (3 May 1977 – 14 July 2017) became the first Iranian and first and only woman to win the Fields Medal.

Let me add, that in the field of optimization, apparently only one woman got the Dantzig Prize, Eva Tardos.

I have to admit, I did not take the time to think of a similar name for startups and innovation. Comments welcome…