Tag Archives: Innovation

Crafts vs industry, the meaning of work according to Arthur Lochmann

Following my recent posts about the meaning and values of work through Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft, here are a few lines translated from the magnificent book by Arthur Lochmann La Vie Solide. I say magnificient because the writing is beautiful, precise, aerial.

Here are pages 99-102

Certainly, all intellectual knowledge, even the most abstract, involves a make, is realized in an action: the knowledge of a theorem of mathematics includes knowing how to apply it. But know-how is distinguished from intellectual knowledge in that the latter can just be available, actionable when needed, and stored in the meantime on external technical supports. The movement of outsourcing knowledge, initiated by writing, – this is the whole topic of Plato’s Phaedrus; writing, at the same time as it preserves knowledge, is also what exempts us from retaining it and making it truly our own – is today exacerbated by the development of new technologies and the permanent accessibility of knowledge offered by these. The relation to knowledge is modified. Knowledge becomes peripheral, whereas what one makes one’s own, what one interiorizes is the capacity to find it again and, above all, to process it. Probably this relationship to knowledge will experience deeper transformations in the coming years with the development of artificial intelligence, which allows to outsource not only the storage of knowledge, but also part of its analytical processing.

Know-how, on the other hand, is characterized by being internalized, incorporated. It involves an intuitive dimension that allows us to recognize the salient features of a situation and to identify the rules of action. You do not consult a video on Youtube to know how to pass a beam of five meters in length in a stairwell, you must have acquired an intuition of space. It alone will allow us to orient the beam to best use the diagonals of space, it alone will have anchored in us the continuous perception of both ends of the beam. However, it is not magic or innate ability. On the contrary, this intuition is an intellectual conquest. Intuition is developed with work. And in this elaboration, which is called experience, the repetition of operations plays a decisive role in making it possible to establish cumulative links between the experienced situations and the chosen solutions. Experience thus consists of a process of appropriation of life.

Several critics of modernity have diagnosed, even found, a gradual destruction of experience. First, because the lifespan of skills, and therefore the experience of their practice, tends to be reduced. In certain areas of activity that are particularly geared to change – as in the case of consulting, the function of which is to change institutions – experience is even ruled out in favor of innovative talent. More deeply, some thinkers of modernity consider that the very possibility of experience is called into question by the acceleration of social and professional rhythms. The appropriation of the “shocks” of everyday life and their transformation into experience requires stable narrative models to establish links between the past and the future. Like the analysis by Hartmut Rosa, when waiting horizons are constantly changing and “spaces of experience are constantly rebuilding” [1], we can only witness a gradual loss of experience.

In the craft trades, however, the techniques evolve slowly, and the skills retain a long life span. Experience therefore remains absolutely crucial. With time and situations, we acquire a whole repertoire of methods and tips that enrich, clarify and complicate material thinking. It is estimated that it takes about ten thousand hours of practice [2] to learn a trade in medicine, music or crafts. In terms of structure, it is indeed the time it takes to acquire an overview of the various situations that may arise and to master all the details. This duration also corresponds to the seven or so years of training (apprenticeship and then the tour de France) which are traditionally necessary to be granted companion by a companionship guild.

[1] Hartmut Rosa, Accélération, Paris, La Découverte, 2010, p.179
[2] In the venture capital world, one says that it reqiures five years and ten million to be come a good investor. Another illustration that experience matters there too and that VC is more about skills and crafts than about an industry of knowledge.

Then pages 153-155:

This knowledge, because it has been developed over time by and for the community, is similar to what we now call common goods, that is to say goods that are intended to be universal and that privatization can destroy or diminish – and which therefore require specific care. In contrast to the “professional secrecy” claimed by certain corporations to grant their knowledge only to those who would have been worth it, in contrast also to the idea of patenting techniques and methods, the will of transmission of knowledge that I have encountered on most sites is in my view of the same logic: know-how is an intangible treasure that belongs to all of society. Each worker is the temporary custodian. As such, her or his responsibility is to make it alive by transmitting it. “Any received word that you have not transmitted is a stolen word,” say the companions.

It is in such a conception of know-how as common goods that the attitude of computer developers working according to the principles of free software and open source is placed. The Linux operating system or Mozilla Firefox web browser is developed and constantly improved by a community of developers who produce their own software. They work first for themselves, making the tools they need, but also for the common good. This is the pattern followed by most free software: first developed to meet the specific need and not yet satisfied by a private community, they are then made public and made available to all, so that everyone can use them and, eventually, adapt them to their own use. Better still, the principle of collective intelligence on which this work is organized consists in considering that the best software will be obtained thanks to the collaboration of the greatest number.

Developers, artisans of modern times, are therefore in the lineage of the dêmiourgos – a term that refers to the artisans, from the ancient Greek ergon, work, and dêmios, public – while renewing its registration in the community. The community here is instituted by the sole decision to take care of a common good. It is not located geographically: it is that of the users of the whole world, in other words the universal common good. It is no more historically located: the process of transmission from generation to generation of old know-how is the process of real-time sharing.

This example, far from being trivial, is a sign of the vitality and modernity of craftsmanship as a way of working, of organization and more generally as a culture and ethical model concerned with the common good through the sharing of knowledge – this while standing out from traditional communities and social structures.

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.

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/

The complexity of innovation policies – the example of Malaysia

I was lucky to meet last week two economists from the International Monetary Fund who are the authors of the working paper The Leap of the Tiger: How Malaysia Can Escape the Middle-Income Trap. It is not directly linked to high-tech innovation and I am not an economist; my expertise is limied to the nano-economics of start-ups. This being said, I was very impressed by the analysis of Reda Cherif and Fuad Hasanov.

In general, I read more about developed countries and high-tech entrepreneurship, Silicon Valley, obviously, but also the example of Israel, Finland, France, Chile… Lerner, Saxenian and Mazzucato have been important authors for me. Hasanov and Cherif explain how Malaysia tried to develop its economy and relatively failed compared to Taiwan and Korea. The reasons are complex and the interested person should read their paper.

They really show the complexity of things and again the recipe needs so much fine tuning, with no guarantee of success. The addition of Chile, Thailand and Norway in their analysis, makes it really rich. I understood that a combination of strong state support (incentives, funding, sometimes protection) and competition in the private sector (so many Korean automotive firms were initially created) with an emphasis on its ability to export is very striking. Why did Nokia succeeded for some time and not Alcatel maybe explained with their arguments. They also put a lot of emphasis in the ability to innovate, a must to enable exportations.

So Mazzucato is right, the state has an entrepreneurial role, but individual initiatives seem to be also important, something I had not necessarily understood in the cased of Taiwan and Korea. The diaspora of engineers who studied and work abroad (in the USA mostly) was instrumental to the economic development and innovation once they came back (sometimes many years later) in their home country…

Les défis de l’innovation

Sorry – this should have been on the French version of my blog. I keep it there and copy it also on the FR side…

C’est en recevant ce matin un lien d’un article du journal de libération en date du 29 juin 2007 (vous lisez bien, 2007, pas 2017) que j’ai décidé de ce post. L’article s’intitule L’iPhone, sans mobile apparent. Il montre de manière presque hilarante la difficulté de prédire. Alors j’en ai profité aussi pour mettre sur Slideshare une présentation que j’ai faite il y a quelques jours intitulée les défis de l’innovation. Désolé car il n’y a pas l’audio, mais il y a quelques données révélatrices… enfin je crois…

Voici donc quelques extraits de l’article. Sur le marché du mobile tout d’abord: “Apple est modeste. Il ne vise que 1 % du marché du mobile, et ne pense écouler que 10 millions d’iPhones d’ici à la fin de 2008. Le marché du mobile, lui, tourne autour du milliard d’unités écoulées en 2006. […] Un créneau que Nokia a l’intention de solidement occuper. Sur les 350 millions de mobiles Nokia écoulés dans le monde en 2006, 77 millions sont des téléphones baladeurs capables comme l’iPhone de diffuser de la musique. Le finlandais a une bonne longueur d’avance…” Sur les chances d’Apple: “De l’avis des analystes, l’iPhone ne va pas bousculer le jeu.” […] «Apple, en lançant son iPhone, est sur le mode défensif. Il n’avait pas vraiment le choix.» 🙂

Voici donc mes slides. Je vous conseille les slides 6 et 10 de la partie 1, la partie 2 est un recyclage de présentations passées, que j’aime aussi tout particulièrement…

Homo Deus : a Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari (Part 2 – the Future)

I remember hesitating to buy Homo Deus. I never really appreciated people trying to analyze what the future might be. I have similar concerns with Harari’s book. I am not the only one as the New Yorker was not all positive: Then he announces his bald thesis: that “once technology enables us to re-engineer human minds, Homo sapiens will disappear, human history will come to an end, and a completely new process will begin, which people like you and me cannot comprehend.” Now, any big book on big ideas will inevitably turn out to have lots of little flaws in argument and detail along the way. No one can master every finicky footnote. As readers, we blow past the details of subjects in which we are inexpert, and don’t care if hominins get confused with hominids or the Jurassic with the Mesozoic. (The in-group readers do, and grouse all the way to the author’s next big advance.) Yet, with Harari’s move from mostly prehistoric cultural history to modern cultural history, even the most complacent reader becomes uneasy encountering historical and empirical claims so coarse, bizarre, or tendentious. […] Harari’s larger contention is that our homocentric creed, devoted to human liberty and happiness, will be destroyed by the approaching post-humanist horizon. Free will and individualism are, he says, illusions. We must reconceive ourselves as mere meat machines running algorithms, soon to be overtaken by metal machines running better ones.

If I feel the same unease, I still beleive Harari asks important questions and he might even have been misunderstood in his real motivation… I link this reading to my recent great readings of Piketty, Fleury and Stiegler.

Whatever some more extracts:

“Because science does not deal with questions of value, it cannot determine whether liberals are right in valuing liberty more than equality, or in valuing the individual more than the collective.” [Page 281]

A strange section is the following: The experiment changed Sally’s life. In the following days, she realised she has been through a ‘near-spiritual experience… what defined the experience was not feeling smarter or learning faster: the thing that made the earth drop out from under my feet was that for the first time in my life, everything in my head had finally shut up… My brain without self-doubt was a revelation. There was suddenly this incredible silence in my head… I hope you can sympathise with me when I tell you that the thing I wanted most acutely for the weeks following my experience was to go back and strap on those electrodes. I also started to have a lot of questions. Who was I apart the angry bitter gnomes that populate my mind and drive me to failure because I’m too scared to try? And where did the voices come from?’
Some of those voices repeat society’s prejudices, some echo our personal history, and some articulate our genetic legacy.
[Page 289] Again individual, society and evolution…

We see then that the self too is an imaginary story, just like nations, gods and money. Each of us has a sophisticated system that throws away most of our experiences, keeps only a few choice samples, mixes them up with bits from movies we saw, novels we read, speeches we heard, and from our own daydreams, and weaves out of all that jumble a seemingly coherent story about who I am, where I came from and where I am going. This story tells me what to love, whom to hate and what to do with myself. This story may even cause to sacrifice my life, if that’s what the plot requires. We all gave our genre. Some people live a tragedy, others inhabit a never-ending religious drama, some approach life as if it were an action film, and not a few act as in a comedy. But in the end, they are all just stories.
What, then, is the meaning of life? Liberalism maintains that we shouldn’t expect an external entity to provide us with some ready-made meaning. Rather, each individual voter, customer and viewer ought to use his or her free will in order to create meaning not just for his or her life, but for the entire universe.
The life sciences undermine liberalism, arguing that the free individual is just a fictional tale concocted by an assembly of biochemical algorithms. Every moment, the biochemical mechanisms of the brain create a flash of experience, which immediately disappears. The more flashes appear and fade, in quick succession. These momentary experiences do not add up to any enduring essence, The narrating self tries to impose order on this chaos by spinning a never-ending story, in which every such experience has its place, and hence every experience has some lasting meaning. But, as convincing and tempting as it may be, this story is a fiction.
[Pages 304-5]

At the beginning of the third millennium, liberalism is threatened not by the philosophical idea that ‘there are no free individuals’ but rather by concrete technologies. We are about to face a flood of extremely useful devices., tools and structures that make no allowance for the free will of individual humans. Can democracy, the free market and human rights survive this flood? [Page 306]

The great decoupling

The practical developments might make this belief [liberalism] obsolete:
1. Humans will lose their economic and military usefulness, hence the economic and political system will stop attaching much value to them.
2. The system will still find value in humans collectively, but not in unique individuals.
3. The system will still find value in some unique individuals, but these will be a new elite of upgraded superhumans rather than the mass of the population.
[page 307]

Humans are in danger of losing their value, because intelligence is decoupling from consciousness. [Page 311]

Intelligence is mandatory, but consciousness is optional. [Page 312]

The current scientific answer to this pipe dream can be summarized in three simple principles:
1. Organisms are algorithms. Every animal – including Homo Sapiens – is an assemblage of organic algorithms shaped by natural selection over millions of years of evolution.
2. Algorithmic calculations are not affected by the materials from which you build the calculator. Whether you build an abacus from wood, iron or plastic, two beads plus two beads equal four beads.
3. Hence there is not reason to think that organic algorithms can do things that non-organic algorithms will never be able to replicate or surpass.
[Page 319]

As algorithms push humans out of the job market, wealth might become concentrated in the hands of the tiny elite that owns the all-powerful algorithms creating unprecedented social inequality. [Page 323]

Is there too much story telling with Harari’s new book. Is the cashier replaced by a robot, or by the customer? What about the Google flu tool, that is mentioned page 335. Did it really work?

The Ocean of Consciousness

The new religions are unlikely to emerge from the caves of Afghanistan or from the madrasas of the Middle East. Rather, they will emerge from research laboratories. Just as socialism took over the world by promising salvation through steam and electricity, so in the coming decades new techno-religions may conquer the world by promising salvation through algorithms and genes. Despite all the talk of radical Islam and Christian fundamentalism, the most interesting place in the world from a religious perspective is not the Islamic State or the Bible Belt, but Silicon Valley. [Page 351]

The humanist revolution caused modern Western culture to lose faith and interest in superior mental states, and to sanctify the mundane experiences of the average Joe. Modern Western culture is therefore unique in lacking a special class of people who seek to experience extraordinary mental states. It believes anyone attempting to do so is a drug addict, mental patient or charlatan. Consequently, though we have a detailed map of the mental landscape of Harvard psychology students, we know far less about the mental landscape of Native American shamans, Buddhist monks or Sufi mystics. And that is just the Sapiens mind. Fifty thousand years ago, we shared this planet with our Neanderthal cousins. They didn’t launch spaceships, build pyramids or establish empire. They obviously had very different mental abilities, and lacked many of our talents. Nevertheless, they had bigger brains than us Sapiens. What exactly did they do with all those neurons? We have absolutely no idea. But they might well have many mental states that no Sapiens had ever experienced. [Page 356]

Techno-humanism faces an impossible dilemma here. It considers the human will to be the most important thing in the universe, hence it pushes humankind to develop technologies that can control and redesign our will. After all, it’s tempting to gain control over the most important thing in the world. Yet once we have such control, techno-humanism would not know what to do with it, because the sacred human will would become just another designer product. We can never deal with such technologeis as long as we believe that the human will and the human experience are the supreme source of authority and meaning.[Page 366]

The Data Religion

[Dataism] is very attractive. It gives all scientists a common language, builds bridges over academic rifts and easily exports insights across disciplinary borders. Musicologists, political scientists and cell biologists can finally understand each other. […] Dataists are sceptical about human knowledge and wisdom, and prefer to put their trust in Big Data and computer algorithms. [Page 368]

Capitalism won the Cold War because distributed data processing works better than centralised data processing, at least in periods of accelerating technological changes. [Page 372] The Industrial Revolution unfolded slowly enough for politicians and voters to remain one step ahead. […] Technological revolutions now outpace political processes, causing MPs and voters alike to lose control. [See Stiegler again] […] The Internet is a free and lawless zone that erodes state sovereignty, ignores borders, abolishes privacy and poses perhaps the most formidable global security risk. [Here see Beaude] […] The NSA may be spying on your every word, but to judge by the repeated failures of American foreign policy, nobody in Washington knows what to do with all the data. [Page 374]

Dataism is also missionary. Its second commandment is to connect everything to the system, including heretics who don’t want to be connected. And ‘every-thing’ means more than just humans. It means every thing. My body, of course, but also the cars on the street, the refrigerators in the kitchen, the chickens in their coop and the trees in the jungle – all should be connected to the Internet-of-All-Things. […] Conversely, the greatest sin is to block the data flow. What is death, if not a situation when information doesn’t flow? […] Dataism is the first movement since 1789 that created a really novel value: freedom of information [Page 382] which has Harari correctly explains in neither freedom nor freedom of expression.

Humanism thought that experiences occur inside us. Dataists believe that experiences are valueless if they are not shared. Twenty years ago Japanese tourists were a universal laughing stock because they always carried cameras and took pictures of everything in sight. Now everyone is doing it. […] Writing a private diary sounds to many utterly pointless. The new moot says: ‘If you experience something – record it. If you record something – upload it. if you upload something – share it.’ [Page 386] Should I blog?

Dataism is neither liberal nor humanist. It isn’t anti-humanist. [Page 387] By equating the human experience with data patterns, Dataism undermines our main source of authority and meaning, and heralds a tremendous religious revolution. […] ‘Yes God is a product of the human imagination, but human imagination in turn is the product of biochemical algorithms.’ In the eighteenth century, humanism sidelined God by shifting from a deo-centric to a homo-centric world view. In the twenty-first century, Dataism may sideline humans by shifting from a homo-centric to a data-centric view. The Dataist revolution will probably take a few decades, if not a century or two. But then the humanist revolution too did not happen overnight. [Page 389]

A critical examination of the Dataist dogma is likely to be not only the greatest scientific challenge of the twenty-first century, but also the most urgent political and economic project. Scholars in the life sciences and social sciences should ask themselves whether we miss anything when we understand life as data processing and decision-making. Is there perhaps something in the universe that cannot be reduced to data? Suppose non-conscious algorithms could eventually outperform conscious intelligence in all known data-processing tasks – what, if anything, would be lost by replacing conscious intelligence with superior non-conscious algorithms? Of course, even if Dataism is wrong and organisms aren’t just algorithms, it won’t necessarily prevent Dataism from taking over the world. Many previous religions gained enormous popularity and power despite their factual mistakes. If Christianity and communism could do it, why not Dataism? [Page 394]

Humans relinquish authority to the free market, to crowd wisdom and to external algorithms partly because they cannot deal with the deluge of data. [Page 396]

As a conclusion, Harari ends his book with the 3 following questions:
1. Are organisms really just algorithms, and is life really just data processing?
2. What is more valuable – intelligence or consciousness?
3. What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?

If reading is not for you, you can still listen to Harari in a recent Ted Talk: Nationalism vs. globalism: the new political divide.