Op-Ed

Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Rabelais

Credits : JD Lasica (CC BY-NC 2.0) — TED Conference (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The controversy between Tesla and Space X’s flamboyant boss, Elon Musk, and Facebook founder and C.E.O., Mark Zuckerberg, about the dangers and opportunities born of artificial intelligence, is very much welcome. It signals that the giants of the new economy do not make up a monolithic block preoccupied only with bringing to life a new digital society, with no one ever stopping to consider the meaning of this ongoing revolution.

At heart, it raises a political question: how can we control the digital realm? In the urban space, this question is especially acute, as the city is the prime level of political decision-making and as the digital revolution disrupts the vital functions of the city — think only of the impact of on-demand transportation on the urban mobility system.

This debate is already at work when it comes to the role of big data: in a stakeholder interplay disrupted by the arrival of digital platforms, who possesses or can access data and, further, to the algorithms that create meaning? When it comes to artificial intelligence, the plot thickens. Data is a tool, not a stakeholder. But what of artificial intelligence: is it a tool for decision-making — either by the city’s inhabitants within the confine of their homes, or by the city, faced with crucial infrastructure choices? Or must we consider artificial intelligence to be a stakeholder soon to decide in place of, which implies thinking about its place within urban governance?

These are major questions, because they touch on issues of accountability and urban citizens’ capacity to evaluate public action: will we all have to become coding or algorithm experts to remain informed citizens? Another way to wonder whether mathematicians won’t ultimately turn out to be the pillars of democracy in the digital era.

That math has invaded the urban space is a matter of fact, as such neither regrettable or desirable. The real question is the following: are we ready to accept, and work with, complexity? This is, in effect, the question at the heart of sometimes confused debates about this famous “collective intelligence” that is as talked about as artificial intelligence. Behind this term lies a very concrete reality: to drive urban projects forward, whether in the field of mobility or energy transition, the silo-ed, technical, top-down approach from the principal down to the executor is no longer appropriate. Consider the example of promising collective auto-consumption projects: none of them will ever see the light of day if public authorities, consumers, engineers, computer scientists, and lawyers fail to work hand in hand. Artificial intelligence might be the one to help us consume better, but it will only play the role it was designed for if placed within the larger perspective of ecological transition.

Returning to meaning: Isn’t that what Rabelais proposed as early as in the 16th century, when he noted that “Science without conscience is but the ruin of the soul”? Let us use the summer to have Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg read Pantagruel!

La Fabrique de la Cité

La Fabrique de la Cité is a think tank dedicated to urban foresight, created by the VINCI group, its sponsor, in 2010. La Fabrique de la Cité acts as a forum where urban stakeholders, whether French or international, collaborate to bring forth new ways of building and rebuilding cities.

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