Metavers, bitcoin… what if we made really useful technologies?

Posted Nov 4, 2022, 7:15 a.m.

In 1910, Theodore Roosevelt denounced “the enslavement of peoples by big business”. He did not propose to dismantle them (they will be by the reinforced antitrust laws from 1914) but wanted to “put them back in the national interest”. In 2022, the same debate should open up worldwide. Who is the metaverse really for? Bitcoin? Artificial intelligence? The implant of microchips in the brains? And, even, the conquest of Mars?

Professors Maurice Stucke and Ariel Ezrachi describe the “Tech Barons”, terms used in reference to the “Robber Barons” of Roosevelt’s time, to warn us against “their toxic innovations” (1). They enter “our private lives, our autonomy, our well-being” to manipulate them. Their firepower (Meta has research credits as high as those of the French State) allows them not only to “crush” any competition but to guide our ways of thinking and living.

Too little money for rare diseases

Exaggeration? The risks of drifting towards “surveillance capitalism” are nevertheless too great not to be considered. The same thing, on another level, for the innovations of robotization and the systematic replacement of man by machine, which are eliminating millions of middle-class jobs and which are not for nothing in the rise of populism.

There can be no question of “returning scientists to the service of the people”, as in the Soviet Union. Lyssenkism is as much a horror as an error, the scientist must be free like the artist. But it is also wrong to believe that states can do nothing. Quite the contrary: if the Intranet was invented by researchers, its generalization in Internet came from the credits of the Pentagon. The take-off of Asiatic geese from Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, and then China itself, was propelled by governments’ desire for export-oriented innovation. The Covid has shown, very cruelly, how rare and tropical diseases have been the subject of too little research, medicine mobilizing too exclusively to prolong the life of the rich in the north.

Overall, Unesco, the UN organization for science and culture, deplores the fact that global credits go more towards weapons than towards “useful” research, that is to say corresponding to the Millennium Health Goals, education, water and, today, global warming. Curiously, the energy sector, which seems so central today, has been the subject of only weak research in terms of credits in recent years. A science “for a better development” is urgent, summarizes the organization.

Self-correcting mechanisms

Humanity generating its self-correcting mechanisms, we are happy to see that the most useless inventions collapse on their own. The fall of cryptocurrencies underlines that the diversion by more or less ideological manipulators of a good technology, the blockchain, quickly ruins the credulous. Better to play races, at least there is a “fundamental” behind this game, the marvelous thoroughbreds. Mark Zuckerberg’s machine, a metaverse to “hold the attention” of Internet users by immersing them in the virtual for days and nights, seized up on its own. The researchers themselves aren’t going into the world they’re told to work on, they clearly don’t believe it, and investors are starting to balk at putting money into the chief’s reverie.

The same could be said, or almost, of artificial intelligence, all geared towards the autonomous automobile. In Europe, so much the better, start-ups are starting to be created that are looking for truly intelligent artificial intelligence, one that does not replace teachers or doctors but helps them to perform better. And then you should never despair: Meta, Google and Microsoft also have useful initiatives in open source AI and there are Californian financiers who persist in competing with them.

But should we be reassured with these self-correcting mechanisms alone? Does common sense always win out? Innovation “that works with humans rather than against them”, in the words of economist Dani Rodrik (2) is the subject of multiple experiments and hopes. But he believes that the time has come for “a new direction for innovation policies”. Difficult debate, essential debate.

(1) Institute for New Economic Thinking, August 29, 2022.

(2) Project Syndicate, February 9, 2022.

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