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Scientific culture: Inria is at the Palais de la Découverte with an area dedicated to digital technology

On 13 March, the Palais de la Découverte will open its new permanent exhibition on computer science and the digital sciences.Organised in partnership with Inria, it offers a panoramic view of these disciplines. Vincent Blech, museographer for Universcience, and Laurent Viennot, research director at the Inria centre in Paris and scientific curator, tell us how the project came together.

What is the origin of the exhibition project and how did you work together?

Vincent Blech: The idea and the desire came from the scientific culture department. In 2016, we proposed the creation of a new unit on the computer sciences. This new area, measuring 300 m2, is in addition to the seven other permanent rooms dedicated to scientific disciplines at the Palais de la Découverte. As a museographer, I ensured the management of the project developed with Stéphane Fay, head of the new unit at the Palais. We called on Inria, one of Universcience's long-standing scientific partners (1), to assist us with the scientific side. Laurent Viennot, and all of the specialists in the scientific committee (2), enriched the exhibition content through their expertise. For Universcience, the challenge consisted in giving concrete expression to the disciplines - without diluting them too much - through scenarios and in finding a good match between the message to be conveyed and interactivity. 

Laurent Viennot: A research director at Inria, I focus on network algorithmics. I joined the project thanks to the institute's scientific culture network, of which I am part. As scientific curator of the exhibition, my role was to select and class the information, and to explain the science that hides behind all of the concepts we have decided to address. However the exhibition, which covers numerous disciplines, goes beyond my field of expertise! For the parts on robotics or machine learning, for example, we joined forces with other colleagues from Inria, the CNRS (French National Centre for Scientific Research) or the universities. 

How is the exhibition organised?

V.B.: The exhibition addresses two questions: "how does it work?" and "what is it for?” We have devised it in three stages. A first part invites visitors to familiarise themselves with the four fundamental and perennial elements of computer science: information, algorithms, language and machines. Then comes 'the laboratory'. This second area presents complex and current systems, organised using the basic elements of computer science. Here it is about networks, robots, machine learning and big data. A third area, the 'techno arena', proposes the discovery and testing of prototypes developed by French start-ups (see inset). The contents of this area can be renewed according to innovations. 

L.V.: The exhibition is very interactive and is aimed at all sections of the public - in particular secondary school and sixth-form students, as it is based on the French national curriculum. Presentations and activities facilitated by the Palais' cultural officers will also be offered around the exhibition. Among these activities we will find so-called 'disconnected' devices - as they do not have a screen - in order to show that it is possible to gain an insight into computer science without a computer.

Can you tell us about one of the experiments?

V.B: Let's take the example of the experiment on algorithms that we developed together with Laurent. To tackle this section, we ask the visitor to solve mazes displayed on a big LED screen. Three levels of difficulty are put in place: from the most intuitive (solved thanks to a series of directional instructions) to the most abstract (solved by writing a program). This experiment also makes it possible to compare and analyse several algorithms.

L.V.: We wanted to show that any problem can be solved using different algorithms, but that they don't all have the same effectiveness in terms of computing time and memory. With these examples, we also wanted to delve into the concept of 'algorithms', to dissect it, in order to better summarise what a computer can or cannot do.

What excited you the most about this project?

V.B.: We had to invent everything, starting from nothing! It is a very stimulating approach. Every one of the exhibition's devices is therefore a unique prototype.

L.V.: I also took great pleasure in developing more unusual support materials.  The exhibition presents computer science in a very original way. Like all of the other scientists who have taken part in the project, I was also delighted to work for the Palais: a museum I visited as a child, and maybe even the place that led me towards the sciences...

Inria is also in the arena

For its first edition, the 'techno arena' features human-computer interaction. In this demonstration area, visitors can test the touchless gesture-based image control system developed by the start-up Therapixel, from Inria. They will also be able to discover the haptic feedback tablet from the young company Hap2U, who benefited from an industry partnership with Inria's MINT2 research group.

> For more details

(1) Inria was the scientific partner of the Terra Data exhibition, presented from 4 April 2017 to 7 January 2018 at the Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie.

(2) Members of the exhibition's scientific committee:

  • Francis Bach, mathematician, statistical learning, Inria Paris
  • Gérard Berry, professor, Collège de France, 'Algorithm, machines and languages' chair
  • Florence D'Alché-Buc, professor, Télécom-ParisTech, Institut Mines-Télécom, 'Machine-Learning for Big Data' chair
  • Gilles Dowek, computer scientist, logician and philosopher, Inria, ENS Paris Saclay professorial fellow
  • Laurent Kott, IT Translation, research transfer and value creation
  • Stéphane Mallat, researcher in applied mathematics, ENS Paris-Saclay professor, member of the French Académie des sciences
  • Antoinette Rouvroy, researcher, philosophy of law, Belgian National Fund for Scientific Research (FNRS, Belgium)
  • Françoise Tort, senior lecturer in computer science, ENS Paris-Saclay, co-founder of the Castor competition
  • Thierry Vieville, researcher in computational neuroscience, Inria Sophia Antipolis

Keywords: Palais de la découverte Médiation Numérique Sciences