“Algorithms are neither good nor bad, they’re what we make them”
Reading time: 5 min
Entrepreneur Aurélie Jean, who holds a PhD in science, specialises in artificial intelligence and algorithms – a subject she covers in her latest essay Les Algorithmes font-ils la Loi ? (“Are algorithms calling the shots?” published by Editions de l’Observatoire in October 2021). She believes that data and AI are a major step in organisational digital transformation.
Why are we scared of algorithms?
Aurélie Jean. Faced with the unknown, we can develop several possible reactions, including fantasy and fear. Algorithms trigger fear for a number of reasons. Firstly because they are both intangible and everywhere at the same time; we interact on a daily basis with these mathematical and digital concepts, sometimes without even realising. They play a part in important decisions in our lives, for example in disease diagnosis, credit line assignment (in the US) or choice of a romantic partner. Over the past few years, we’ve seen several algorithm scandals relating to gender or racial discrimination. When misconstrued in the media, by politicians or in discussions with friends, all of these things can further mystify algorithmics to the extent that the discipline is rejected, with deep-seated fear building up around it. But as I often say, algorithms are not a black-and-white issue. They are neither good nor bad, they are what we make them. We need to remember that behind each algorithm is a human being.
How can they help accelerate digital transformation and/or the energy transition in businesses?
A.J. A few years ago, digital transformation enabled businesses to reach their clients or consumers. Today, algorithms help businesses understand their clients thanks to data collection and analysis. The arrival of data and algorithmics is just as important as digital transformation, and in some ways accelerates transformation as without digital technology there can be no algorithmic calculations. As far as the energy transition is concerned, algorithms can help measure water or energy consumption in goods production and transport in near real time. You can only develop that which you can evaluate over time. And data and algorithms are a smart way of doing that.
We are not seeing an increase in numbers of women in tech jobs and engineering. What can be done to change that?
A.J. Things are changing, but you’re right numbers aren’t really going up. Action needs to be taken on various levels. At school (from preschool onwards), we need to develop an analytical mindset in children and in students so that they become problem solvers. At home, we need to encourage girls differently to boys in science and engineering. And in society, we need to get rid of all the prejudices and stereotypes about women in these sectors. We also need to talk to men in these communities – they’re the greatest allies for us women scientists and engineers! We’re going in the right direction but we have to speed up the process by having an honest conversation. When I speak to girls studying in their last years at school and at university, I tell them that by choosing scientific and engineering disciplines, they’ll be intellectually stimulated all their life. They’ll solve large-scale problems with far-reaching influence on society and they’ll earn a good living. Intellectual and financial independence: a winning combination!
What will the next technological breakthroughs be? In which sectors is innovation accelerating the most?
A.J. That’s hard to say. As the Metaverse develops, there are bound to be technological breakthroughs in computer vision. I’m a firm believer in advances in sectors like medicine, where algorithms are paving the way for a different paradigm. By that I mean predicting disease risk, and personalising, refining medicine. Great things can be done in this area.
Who or what inspires you?
A.J. I still find Steve Jobs really inspiring 11 years after his death. His creativity and genius were extraordinary. Professor Richard Feynman, whom I regularly quote in my books, and his brilliant teaching technique and infectious passion also inspire me. In terms of technology, I can’t not mention internet communication, which enables me to speak to my friends and family on both sides of the Atlantic whenever I like and without any effort. In 2004, when I went to the US for the first time, Skype was in its infancy and I was still using phone cards to call my grandparents. It might sound naïve, but that changed my life.