Gilles Dowek: for universal digital education

Date:
Changed on 26/02/2021
Gilles Dowek, an Inria researcher, has just joined France’s new-look National Digital Council. We caught up with him to chat about the ties that now link digital science and citizens together.
éducation universelle au numérique
© Unsplash / Photo Jaime Lopes

What is your assessment of the ties between digital science and citizens?

In order to get a comprehensive overview of the current relationship between digital science and citizens, you have to consider two phenomena: the role played by digital technology in people's daily lives; and, at the same time, the ways in which people perceive and represent digital objects.

With regard to the first of these, this is a relatively recent question for us, in that it is only since the advent of the internet that IT has really been present in our everyday lives. From the 1940s to the 1980s, computers had very specific tasks, such as predicting what the weather would be like the next day, or calculating bridges. It wasn’t until the 1990s, when the web became properly widespread, that ties between computers and society began to form. And this is something that we’re still trying to understand.

If you look at the different sectors that digital technology has had an impact on, it’s hard to find any that have escaped this revolution. Nowadays you can work, learn, receive medical treatment, go shopping, watch shows and catch up with friends and family using digital technology, which is ever-present in our everyday lives, both at a professional level and a personal level. The Covid-19 pandemic has made this even more pronounced.

With regard to the second phenomenon, I am constantly surprised by the negative perception among the wider public and some of the individuals attempting to explore these issues, with highly critical takes on screens, GAFA, fake news, etc. Of course it is only right that we explore these issues, but it is just as important to recognise the progress that has been made at the same time. Take fake news, for example, which you can’t talk about without mentioning the fact that the same technology is used to share knowledge in an entirely new way. This is revolutionary.

Why do you think people are so wary?

There are a lot of possible explanations. The first is cultural: Europeans have always been somewhat hostile towards machines and technology. Another is that these machines are changing the balance of power. Some people used to enjoy certain positions in society as a result of their knowledge, but the emergence of online learning and the free sharing of knowledge has completely upset the established order.

There is also a lack of understanding, which means that people are not always able to grasp all of the benefits these systems could bring, either because they’re not using them properly or because they don’t understand the difference between different types of technology. For example, a tracking application that follows people around, and which is capable of plotting their journeys, is very different from an anonymous tracking application, which is less dangerous in terms of our personal data. If you don’t know what data anonymisation is, then you won’t be able to understand that. And that brings us back to the issue of the sharing of data, of educating people about digital technology.

However, ignorance can’t explain everything. Sometimes people have the knowledge, and yet continue to maintain an attitude of defiance. We have to understand that there is no need to force society to progress all at the same time. We have to learn to live with these types of people because they are always going to be there. That said, it is important to provide the best possible support to people who want to understand digital technology and to evolve alongside it.

How can the wider public be supported in their education in digital technology?

It is worth pointing out the enormous amount of progress that has been made in this area in recent years. Ten years ago, digital technology was not part of school curricula. Nowadays, computing is taught at all levels, from primary school up to secondary level. We must continue along this path, training more teachers in digital technology, recruiting more teachers of IT subjects and improving the quality of existing teaching for pupils, as this doesn't always evolve with time.

Teaching everyone about digital technology is important. Not because it is mandatory, but because it concerns all of us. This aspect of universality is also important when it comes to promoting women in the digital sector. There is a real gender imbalance as soon as these subjects become optional, but there is no reason for this, as IT doesn’t have a gender.

It may be useful to open up towards new technology, such as artificial intelligence and the blockchain, in digital education, while being wary of not following fads.

Digital Education, a strong challenge for Inria

A lot of things have been introduced in order to help younger people learn about digital technology. What is the situation like for older generations?

We have this notion, possibly a false one, that our lives are a succession of phases: the first, awakening; the second, learning; the third, production; and then the final stage, during which you don’t learn anything and you don't produce anything. This is slightly rigid, and we have to start thinking differently.

The idea of learning at school or university throughout our lives must become more widespread. Instead of having a seven-day week divided into five days at work and two days off, why not divide it up into four days at work, one day for learning and two days off? And then, every seven years, you go back to the classroom for six months or a year in order to learn new things.

This might sound a bit utopian, but looking more short-term, we have to provide employees with training in digital technology that is linked to their jobs, not just because it will be of use to them, but also because they may find it interesting. Take a baker, for example. Going on a course on new technology could allow them to automate part of their production or to start selling their products online. We have to consider what is most appropriate based on people's specific occupations and concerns.

How will the new-look CNNum be able to help bring the wider public closer to digital technology?

The members of the council have just been appointed, and as is the case with any newly-formed council, we will need to choose which directions we want to go in over the coming months. Until recently, the CNNum was very industry-centric, which was a good thing as that's what we've needed in recent years. This new council has more academics and researchers. It seems safe to assume that such individuals will be more concerned with the ties linking digital technology and society.

The CNNum will have an important role to play with law enforcement and public services. We now have a government that has successfully digitised much of what it does, with most administrative procedures going online, but our institutions were designed in the XVIIIth century, at a time when there were very few different ways of handling information. The problem we now face is that with citizens who have grown used to expressing themselves outside of these elective systems, institutions don’t know what to do with this information, and aren’t capable of listening to such discourse. We will need to think about how these institutions can be adapted to this world in which such large volumes of data are constantly circulating.

Gilles Dowek

A graduate of École Polytechnique, Gilles Dowek is a researcher at Inria and a professor at the École Normale Supérieure Paris Saclay. His research is chiefly concerned with the formalisation of mathematics and proof processing systems. He was awarded the Grand Prix de Philosophie by the Académie Française for Les Métamorphoses du Calcul (Transformations in Computing). He co-authored The Age of Algorithms with Serge Abiteboul, and sits on the French Computer Society’s scientific board, La main à la pâte's scientific board and the review commission of the French National Steering Committee for Digital Ethics.