- Interview -
“It is URGENT that we think through innovation”
Nanotechnologies, transhumanism, artificial intelligence, the Internet... Innovation is spreading its tentacles and rushing ahead of us even before we have had time to assess its consequences. Author of L’innovation à l’épreuve de la philosophie (Innovation put to the test by philosophy)*, Xavier Pavie invites us to think through innovation upstream, in order to maintain control of our progress and take responsibility for the changes it initiates.
Do you think there are any innovations we should be watching closely today?
The innovations that require particular vigilance include transhumanism, which promotes the use of scientific discoveries to improve our human performance; as well as nanotechnologies that are increasingly present in consumer products such as certain clothing and sun creams. The same is true for artificial intelligence – a field in which we are not yet fully aware of the consequences and that we are nonetheless continuing to develop at a very fast pace. Other innovations, such as social networking platforms, may seem more innocuous at first glance, yet we must remain alert to the side-effects they can have, such as the creation of databases on individuals. In reality, any innovation is potentially dangerous if it is not first thought through in a rigorous and global manner. That doesn’t mean I think we shouldn’t be inventing – quite the contrary, since I’m an innovation teacher! I’m saying it’s essential that inventors be trained in philosophical issues in order to be able to question their innovations responsibly and prevent them from escaping their grasp. As an English proverb says, “Once the genie is out of the bottle, you can’t put it back in”. We must therefore be aware that when we develop artificial intelligence and nanotechnologies, their uses can quickly outstrip their inventors!
Should we train minds in philosophy from an early age?
In kindergarten classes, teachers do a lot of questioning, which is a philosophical approach. The problem is that afterwards, throughout our studies – including secondary school – and during our professional lives, we are overly focused on assimilating knowledge. It is clear that questioning ourselves is an exercise that requires stepping out of our comfort zone, venturing beyond what we already know, which is not easy. But we must discipline ourselves to do so regularly. If we do not, all we can do is cling to certainties and passively accept our fate.
The ever-growing importance of the virtual in our lives is indeed resulting in societal changes, but are physiological mutations also taking place?
We have always mutated physiologically under the influence of innovations. For example, we no longer need our wisdom teeth to eat today’s food. As a result, there is little space for them in our jaws today and they are often extracted. Similarly, when printing was invented by Gutenberg, we began to read, which led to profound societal upheavals and physiological mutations over a relatively long period of time... The great difference with the Internet lies in the rapid pace of change, which will inevitably also have consequences for our bodies.
Which precepts of ancient philosophers should inspire us to reflect on the impacts of our scientific progress?
I think that the precepts of Stoics such as Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca, focused on self-control, mastering passions and relying on reason, are very useful in helping individuals become aware of what they are doing and acting positively. They must enable us to take decisions in accordance with our true selves, by developing our free will and by relativizing external influences. If necessary, they could also lead to the abandonment of a project.
Does this mean we shouldn’t necessarily invent everything we possibly can?
We must question the validity of certain inventions. If they threaten our ecosystem or lead to manufacturing that is dangerous for individuals, are they worth developing? It is crucial to measure the side-effects of our ideas, before it’s too late.
But if I refuse to develop an invention for ethical reasons, no doubt my less scrupulous neighbor will do so…
That’s the whole problem. Ethics is an issue that must be considered from a global perspective, particularly in those parts of the world that invest most in research and development and are driving innovation: Asia in general and China in particular.
Which are the most innovative countries today?
China is about to take over global leadership in the realm of innovation. And on a broader level, Asia as a whole: Singapore is the fifth most innovative country; Japan is one of the world’s leading nations
in terms of patent registrations. Within Europe, Switzerland is extremely innovative in high-tech fields. Scandinavian countries are very creative and pioneering in non-technological innovations, such as teaching methods or local, social and participatory democracy. The United States naturally remains very strong, thanks to Silicon Valley, which is still the world’s most important innovation hub. In Africa, Rwanda, which is highly committed to health and education issues, has established itself as a “zero corruption” and “total transparency” country, which enables it – within the context of dynamic African development – to attract foreign capital.
Is it better to be an expert in a specific field in order to innovate, or rather to have a transdisciplinary profile?
We need to have a strong understanding of certain elements, and then open up our field of reflection beyond our discipline. This is the whole purpose of the iMagination Center that I created almost ten years ago. It serves to assemble astrophysicists, philosophers, winegrowers, engineers and many other profiles within the framework of seminars, and to maintain direct contact with students. The aim is to help everyone escape from daily routine through reflection and sharing, to put themselves in perspective and broaden their vision.
Could some innovations create a point of no return?
All innovations necessarily create points of no return. Could we live today without a computer, without the Internet, without books, without medication, without means of transport? Such an approach would lead to unthinkable regressions. Today’s real issues are instead: how can we ensure that current innovations are not harmful; and which innovations should be developed in order to make the world a better place?
Which innovations to date do you indeed view as positive?
In my opinion, all innovations that promote development and access to knowledge are wonderful. I am thinking in particular of Wikipedia and YouTube, which bring knowledge to as many people as possible and promote the emergence of awareness, and therefore individual freedoms. I also regard the circular economy as an extremely powerful and coherent example of process innovation.
Is innovation part of our human nature?
Since living species appeared on earth, we have never ceased progressing and seeking to engage in continuous development. Bergson calls this “the vital impulse” which he describes as a drive towards perpetual improvement for all living species, and Nietzsche dubbed it “the will to power”. Yes, of course, I think that the desire to innovate is intrinsic to our human nature.
Based on an interview by par Michèle Wouters
A philosopher and professor of innovation at the ESSEC Business School, Xavier Pavie is also Academic Director of the Grand École program in Singapore, Director of the iMagination Center, and Research Associate at the IRePH (Research Institute in Philosophy) of the University of Paris-Nanterre.
His most recent book*, published by PUF in April 2018, is entitled L’Innovation à l’épreuve de la philosophie.