“We’ll be thankful for all the progress in healthcare”

The take-away

  • Europe lacks the databases to create artificial intelligence competitive with the US and China.
  • AI is likely to bring about new inequalities and raise sensitive ethical questions.

In France, Laurent Alexandre is the go-to person for anything having to do with artificial intelligence. He predicts that while AI will revolutionise all areas of day-to-day life, from work to health to education, Europeans are not sufficiently prepared for this upheaval. They will be, in his words, “useful idiots for artificial intelligence”. For several years he has been delivering this message through books, articles, personal appearances and broadcasts of his lectures that have attracted millions of internet views. A urologist by training and creator of one of France’s most popular websites (see inset), Alexandre generates respect and controversy in equal measure. We met with him to find out more.

Technologist: How did your fascination with artificial intelligence begin?

Laurent Alexandre: Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey had a big impact on me as a child. I developed a strong interest in science and future technologies at a relatively young age. My passion for AI was built around the pace of progress and the failures of this technology. I believe the AI era really started only in 2012 and 2013 with the Google Brain programme capable of “discovering” for itself the concept of chat by using several million images.

T. What will be the consequences of AI?

LA. First, we should differentiate between weak and strong AI. The first does what it has been taught. It’s powerful but remains under human control. The second includes self-awareness and the ability to develop its own projects, thereby escaping its creators. Beware – anyone who expects the second type to appear overnight will be disappointed. I think we’ll face these sorts of intelligence only in some decades’ time. The foundations of a revolution are already taking place with the current research into AI. I’m thinking of medicine, for example, where analysis of huge quantities of data will provide much more precise diagnoses than today. A doctor’s job will change fundamentally.

T. Where is Europe in this revolution?

LA. Unfortunately, most of progress is occurring elsewhere: in the US via GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple) and in China via BATX (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, Xiaomi). It is highly unlikely that anyone will be able to make AI without using mountains of data before 2030. And there are no European databases that can match those of GAFA or BATX.

T. So you’re pretty pessimistic.

LA. Yes. Look how hard it is to compete with Google and Facebook. The entry barrier is the hundreds of billions of euros in investment that would be needed to create similar services. The financial clout and technological lead of a player like Amazon is such that the French group Carrefour struggles to compete, even though it is a global leader in large-scale distribution. This is also why Carrefour created a partnership with Google.

T. We still have politicians like Cédric Villani, a French MP, who are proposing measures to promote innovation in AI.

LA. Such initiatives are moving in the right direction. But two issues remain: they are too few, and they don’t make it very far given the challenge. Above all, I believe we must find the resources to keep our leading experts from moving abroad. Like France’s Yann LeCun, considered one of the inventors of the “deep learning” principle, who works for Facebook.

T. In your latest book, La Guerre des Intelligences (The War of Intelligences), you explain how to prepare children better for living with AI. What would your future school look like?

LA. I think intelligence is the inequality that society is failing most to correct. If we don’t change anything, I fear there will be two groups of people in the future: the highly intelligent who will manage to work with AI, and those who are a little less bright and will be marginalised in the labour market. This is a sensitive subject on which I’m subjected to a lot of criticism. I think schools should use technology, neuroscience and even DNA analysis to tailor teaching so that each individual student can realise their potential. We need experts in this area in schools.

T. Do you support genetic changes to improve brain capacity so that we can face up to the power of AI?

LA. There are actually two scenarios for increasing brain capacity: either selection and genetic manipulation of embryos or direct electronic action on our brains. Elon Musk is working on the latter through his company Neuralink. But I don’t find either of these scenarios attractive, even if I believe they’ll become reality. So, we need to ask ourselves the right questions, particularly on an ethical level. For example, should we be allowed to discriminate against those who have access to science that increases cognitive capacity? If I had to choose, I’d be bio-progressive rather than post-humanist: I prefer cardiac stem cells to artificial hearts, embryo selection to brain implants.

T. What will be the most beneficial effects of AI on society?

LA. We’ll be thankful for all the progress made in healthcare. Right now, finding a good doctor is often about knowledge and networking. There can be real inequalities. AI can create a common, high-level standard for everyone. I hope I’m not wrong about that.

The futurologist’s 1,000 lives

Trained as a surgeon specialising in urology, Laurent Alexandre also racked up various credentials from the most prestigious institutions in France in the fields of political science, business and administration. In 1999, he set up the website Doctissimo, a platform on which internet users can find information and share their concerns about health. Doctissimo became one of the most visited sites in France, enabling Alexandre to sell it to a leading national publisher for €139 million in 2008.

Since then, Alexandre has shifted his focus to writing, speaking and investing. He has stakes in some 15 European and American companies that are involved with nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive sciences. One is DNAVision, a Belgian firm that specialises in DNA sequencing. Alexandre says he never asks for a business plan: “I support people, not Excel spreadsheets. They should know history, philosophy and have a vision of our world that goes beyond their own lifespan.”