S. Abiteboul: The coming years will be crucial in terms of regulations, ethics and education
Inria célébre les 10 ans de l'ERC (European Research Grant) - © Inria / Photo G. Scagnelli
From his first contacts with punch cards at the CNET (French National Telecommunications Research Centre) to the challenges that lie ahead for society and to his future digital memory...Serge Abiteboul, research director at Inria, casts a sharp eye on 100 years of evolution in information technology.
In 1967, when Inria - called IRIA at the time - came into being at Rocquencourt, Serge Abiteboul was 13 years old. Unlike the teenagers of today, he was not particularly tempted by the wonderful world of information technology. "And for good reason - I hardly even knew it existed!" the researcher affirms. "We have to recognise that, at the time, it was an extremely confidential subject: only a chosen few had access to the machines... " For him, the first contact took place in the mid-1970s, during his studies at ENST (Télécom Paris Tech), the French higher education and research institution. "It was during an internship at the CNET (Orange Labs) that I truly discovered information technology, via punch cards"
"In 1982, sending an email outside of Inria was complicated."
It was not really love at first sight: at the time, information technology was a laborious discipline that required quite a lot of patience. Programs had to be run throughout the night before there was any hope of a result, and provided that no syntax errors had been made. What made him dream were the robots of Isaac Asimov and the possibility of an artificial intelligence. "I liked the latter so much my studies almost went down that route, but in the end the AI of the time did not appeal to me. I was looking for something more precise. And so I focused on the algebraic properties of databases, and that is where everything fell into place for me! It has to be said that I was fortunate enough to do my thesis in the United States, at the University of Southern California, with Seymour Ginsburg, an extraordinary thesis supervisor. "
In 1982, the young man returned to France. As some of his friends had praised the great atmosphere at Inria, he applied for a researcher position which he secured. It was the beginning of a long story. It was also a sudden reality check. "When I was in the United States, the Internet was already a reality, and we easily exchanged mails with the whole world. However in Europe, things were totally different: sending an email outside of Inria was complicated! At the time, the technological gap between the "new world" and the "old continent" was enormous. "
1996, Palo Alto: and suddenly, a search engine worthy of the name
The revolution was to be the arrival of the World Wide Web in 1989 - a 100% “old continent” creation as it so happens - that he considers a "shock", opening the door to an infinite range of possibilities and a hitherto unsuspected ease of use. Some years later, in 1995, Serge Abiteboul once again left France. He was bound for Palo Alto, where his wife was responsible for establishing the American subsidiary of O2, a French start-up. For him, it would be a visiting professor position at Stanford. There, he talked a lot with a PhD student in his research group called Sergey Brin, himself the friend of another student called Larry Page. The two of them were working together on a ranking system enabling the measurement of the popularity of Web pages. Their algorithm, named PageRank, would give rise to the Google search engine. "One day, Sergey invited me to the first demonstration of their tool, and I must admit I was bowled over by the relevance of the result links; it was in stark contrast to the mediocre quality of the search engines of the time. Had they suggested it, I would have invested in their project with my eyes closed! " Some months later, the company Google was created...
Digital technology, ethics, politics...
And here we are in 2017. Serge Abiteboul, who came back to France a long time ago, has experienced numerous professional adventures: he has been, in turn, consultant for NASA, professor at the École polytechnique, co-founder of Xyleme (a company specialising in the management of XML content), professor at the Collège de France, member of the French Digital Council, president of the Scientific Board of the SIF (Société d’informatique de France), member of the French Académie des Sciences, winner of the Milner award and the ACM Sigmod award, teacher at the ENS Cachan, creator of the binary blog on the Le Monde website, author of popular books on data and algorithms, novelist, most recently scientific curator of the Terra Data exhibition...and still research director at Inria. During this time, the world of digital technology has also seen some developments. "Recently, we finally managed to get within reach of the goal that information technology has been pursuing for the last 50 years, i.e. working on enormous volumes of data and analysing them. However this victory raises many questions, many fantasies and many concerns and suspicions. We must learn to manage data not only efficiently but also responsibly. The coming years will be crucial in terms of regulations, ethics and education. This last point is, for me, particularly important, as the general public must understand information technology and its associated challenges. Without this, there is no understanding of the world around us and, as a result, an inability to make the political choices imposed on us by the current evolution in digital technology. "
2067: memory partners?
Last March, Elon Musk announced the arrival of Neuralink. And what is the vocation of this umpteenth satellite operation of the Canadian billionaire's empire? To equip the human brain with a digital layer that would enable it to connect to different devices and, above all, improve its memory. Even though Serge Abiteboul declares himself totally unqualified concerning the idea of integrating electronic components within the brain, he is captivated by the software aspects of a digital memory: "human beings accumulate knowledge throughout their lives, tons of data. However, unfortunately over time a lot of this information disappears. My dream for 2067 is intelligent systems that work as memory partners and enable us to access memories that we do not want to lose. It would be a great step forward for humanity... "