Can technology, and even more should it, solve all the problems facing humanity? In a world where the engineer is king and where technological innovation takes precedence over any other form of innovation, isn’t it time to take a step back?
By Christian Fauré, Scientific Director of Octo Technology and Director of the USI
We see today that the thought of the engineer has become dominant: it is moreover its engineer-entrepreneurs that Silicon Valley puts forward and who make us adopt in France the ideas of the “Start-up Nation” or of the “Platform State”. Is it really for the best?
This hegemony manifests itself in the propensity to promote technologies to solve all sorts of problems. Apple’s slogan, ” There’s an app for that captures this spirit of the times. This evolution questions and makes us ask the question: wouldn’t technology become a contemporary form of blind belief?
When Chris Anderson publishes his article The end of theory, the data deluge makes the scientific method obsolete in Wired magazine in 2008, it’s a real shock: scientific thought would have become obsolete, and you would only have to provide data to algorithms to solve any problem.
Therefore, what is the point of developing knowledge and expertise if the machines surpass us in speed and efficiency?
The impasse of technological solutionism
In his gallery AI is not an excuse (published in the magazine Association for Computer Machinery in October 2019), the scientific director of Google, Vint Cerf, takes the opposite view.
He warns companies against this tendency to rely on magic AI solutions. A complicated problem to solve? Just wait and let machine learning take care of it! For Vint Cerf, the observation is clear: companies have become lazy, and indeed in the negative sense of the term.
This constant search for a turnkey solution very often conceals a shortcoming: the short time spent to fully pose the problems that we wish to solve.to define their scope, to listen to the grievances they generate, to understand their causes, so as not to be deceived by technological promises.
What Evgeny Morozov also denounced in his book ” To solve everything click here ». The aberration of technological solutionism is now becoming manifest, and the look at technologies (AI, cryptocurrencies, metaverses, and other buzzwords) is now much more suspicious.
To the point that some of them smell of sulfurgiven the concentration of opportunistic intriguers who gravitate there in the hope of making moves, as poker players can do using bluffing practices.
Not every problem has its solution
We learned that technological solutions are not necessarily solutions at all. On the contrary, they can generate new problems, in particular social and environmental. We also know that some problems are so made that they can’t have solutions… or, more precisely, no remedy that would eradicate or remove the problem. Because very often, we just move it.
This is what the architect and urban planner Horst Rittel referred to as “wicked problems”, which could be translated into French as “problems fourbes”.
They are deceitful in that they do not lend themselves to a solution in the sense that one could solve a problem of mathematics or simple engineering: the layout of a new highway or the planning of the territory, which serve it to illustrate his point, do not only make people happy. We must therefore mourn this unique, ultimate, lasting, entirely consensual and systematically driven by technology.
This, as well as the industrial world, including in its digital component, are now summoned to the environmental tribunal: rebound effect, extraction of raw materials, carbon impact, negative externalities, etc. Isn’t it time to advocate a more responsible and measured use of technologies? For this, it is urgent for the company to develop a real long-term vision of the solutions it offers, uses and buys. At the risk, otherwise, that today’s answer becomes tomorrow’s insoluble problem.
Knowledge rather than technology
To avoid falling into the trap of technological solutionism, it is good to remember that some of them involve knowledge that can save complex processes.
Bill Gates is the archetypal engineer fascinated by the problems that technology can solve. So, as part of his foundation, he launched a major initiative to tackle toilets and the difficulty of managing excreta around the world.
The initiative is commendable, but above all it has produced very technical solutions that struggle to find their application in the real world, where the Swiss biologist Philippe Morier-Genoud, as shown in the documentary “ The Great Toilet Battle », develops a less technological solution, but much more efficient and realistic, based on… the use of earthworms!
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