Geneviève Fieux-Castagnet and Gérald Santucci: Artificial Intelligence: A Civilizational Challenge, A Generational Duty

The phrase “Artificial Intelligence” is not new. The Dartmouth Conference of 1956 was the moment when Artificial Intelligence gained its name, its mission, and its first bunch of famed scientific leaders – Marvin Minsky, John McCarthy, Claude Shannon, Nathan Rochester.

The concept, however, goes far back in antiquity, with myths, legends, stories of artificial beings endowed with “intelligence” or “consciousness” by master craftsmen, and in history, with the building of realistic humanoid automatons by craftsmen from every civilization, from Greece and Egypt to China, India and Europe, and later of calculating machines by many mathematicians like Gottfried Leibniz, Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, and so forth.

Then, developments accelerated in the second half of the twentieth century, with a sequence of periods which scholars called “the golden years” (1956-1974), “the first AI winter” (1974-1980), “Boom” (1980-1987), and “Bust: the second AI winter” (1987- 1993). After 1993, due to increasing computer power, the field of Artificial Intelligence finally achieved some of its oldest goals by being applied and used successfully throughout the industry, although hardly visible for non-specialists.

Since 2000, access to large amounts of data (“big data”) collected from billions of “Internet of Things” smart connected devices, faster computers, and new machine learning techniques were successfully applied to many problems throughout the economy. Advances in ‘deep learning”, in particular deep convolutional neural networks and recurrent neural networks, drove progress and further research in image and video processing, text analysis, and speech recognition.

Today we begin to live with a new customised dictionary or lexicon containing words like “algorithm”, “machine learning”, “deep learning”, or “neural network”, which are an integral part of our cultural landscape.
At the same time, we see almost all countries of the world launching comprehensive research and development programmes geared to enhance Artificial Intelligence skills and to leverage this discipline for economic, sustainable and inclusive growth as well as social development. Decision-makers are aware that Artificial Intelligence, as an unprecedented revolutionary, disruptive and once-in-a-generation phenomenon, presents a tremendous potential that shouldn’t be ignored, and in fact must be unleashed. Beyond the short-term financial impact of Artificial Intelligence deployment, nation-states are striving to hit far greater achievements in domains like healthcare, agriculture, education, smart cities, mobility and transportation, and so on.

Artificial Intelligence is poised to disrupt our world. With intelligent machines enabling high-level cognitive processes like thinking, perceiving, learning, problem solving and decision making, coupled with advances in data collection and aggregation, analytics and computer processing power, it presents opportunities to complement and supplement human intelligence and enrich the way people live and work.
Every new day brings evidence of the formidable opportunities created by Artificial Intelligence, but also the immense societal and ethical, and even civilizational challenges that it poses to humanity. At the same time countries are seeking to boost R&D in Artificial Intelligence, they design and debate their own legislative and regulatory approaches aimed at addressing these challenges. International organisations such as OECD and the European Commission are also working on “guidelines” about ethics in Artificial Intelligence and associated technologies.

In the past few years, tech companies – notably the “GAFA” in the United States (Google, Apple, Facebook Amazon) and the “BATX” in China (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, Xiaomi) – certainly seem to have embraced ethical self-scrutiny: establishing ethics boards, writing ethics charters, and sponsoring research in topics like algorithmic bias.

It is too early to say if these boards and charters are changing how these big companies work or holding them accountable in any meaningful way. But what matters is that both public sectors and private companies are working, sometimes separately but more and more often collaboratively, in order to strike a balance between innovation and protection, business and ethics.

We think time is ripe to provide a framework conducive to a better understanding and structuring of the main recent developments, opportunities and problems.

This is the purpose of this essay.

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