“The new technologies exist but we still have to invent the world that goes with them”

By July 25, 2014

Robots and the new technologies are gradually infiltrating our society, but questions are still being raised about how we should use them.

Interview, during a L’Atelier Numérique (L’Atelier Digital) broadcast, with Olivier Levard, journalist and author of Nous sommes tous des robots (We are All Robots), published by Michalon.

L’Atelier: In your book you claim that “we are all robots”. Can we really say this?

Olivier Levard: As a child of the 1980-1990 generation who was steeped in science fiction, I always dreamed about robots. Today however we’re very often disappointed with the humanoid robots that are being created because they’re nowhere near as good as in science fiction. So I asked myself: “So where are these smart humanoid robots which get around easily?” And then I realised – in fact they’re us! We’re see an increasing number of technological objects worn directly on the body. I think this is the next step after the era of the smartphone, which has enslaved us. We’ll soon have new types of devices that allow us to interact with the digital world more directly. One clear example sums up this revolution really well: Google Glass.

It’s true that Google Glass and its dedicated apps do exist, but are people really using them?

It may be that this generation of connected glasses doesn’t really take off, but nevertheless I firmly believe that this device has a future. The idea, which I address in my book, is that people are tired of always having their heads bowed over their telephones. There have already been accidents because of this. People fall on to underground train lines, or take for instance the young woman who fell off the end of a sea wall because she was reading her notifications on Facebook. Fortunately she survived. And it’s worth pointing out that she didn’t let go of her phone during the whole misadventure! So the value of connected glasses and connected watches lies in being able to interact with the digital world, whether on the social networks, using SMS or through information systems in the widest sense. It could be about doing research on the Internet in a far more natural manner, without having to pull a phone out of your pocket. What we’re talking about here is the interface of the future – which could in fact be our own enhanced bodies – the concept of Augmented Man. The value of connected objects which we wear on our bodies is to be able to constantly monitor our physical activity. The idea here is that we’re becoming robots ourselves – rather like the Terminator, who has a built in screen that tells him when he’s been injured. We’re going to have devices that analyse our bodies on an ongoing basis. We’re already starting to resemble these robots which haven’t yet arrived.

The term ‘robot’ still has a negative connotation in our language. But the aim of all these objects is to enhance our capacities and help us to deal with our everyday reality. So where do we stand between this fear and all the future possibilities?

Robots are going to arrive some time or other and we’ll have to accept them. In fact there are two possible ways of looking at the question. The first is that robots are well appreciated. People like them because they’re thinking of the robots in science fiction. A study carried out by the European Union in several countries tried to find out whether people like robots. In fact 80% of those surveyed replied “Yes I like them because they make you dream, it’s something from our childhood.” The other side of the coin is the horrible robotic image from a metal world which is fast and efficient. People think about the robots that we see multiplying these days in our factories. They’re afraid, especially for their jobs. France is one of the countries in Europe where we’re most afraid of these robots coming to steal our jobs. In addition, there’s the issue of the connected body, and this raises philosophical, religious, intimate and ethical questions. The debate will probably go on for thirty years and even much longer. The right to modify one’s own body might seem obvious, but at that point you get into some of the great debates of our society: the right to abortion and euthanasia. This type of question has already been raised by cosmetic surgery and that’s still raising a lot of questions.

Anyway these technologies may have very practical uses. Imagine that under my skin I have an RFID chip containing information on products that are already on the market or which will be arriving very soon. I could open the door of my apartment, pay at a store, unlock my car, change the temperature and adjust the lighting when I arrive home, and so on – all with a tiny chip. A startup in the United States can help you buy one, but it’s still illegal in France. The fact is that these new technologies already exist but we still have to invent the world that goes with them.

Now that society and legislation are really beginning to make progress on this topic, could we start to develop real uses for connected objects?

Before I wrote my book, I used to think that society wasn’t at all ready, but I soon realised that I was mistaken. Technologies which give us the creeps at first end up being accepted in society. For example, the remote control that we use every day to zap our television was first invented to help handicapped people. And when the use of a given technology spreads, we very quickly see the advantages, which in the end are there for everyone. The ‘kit man’, for example, developed at an MIT laboratory, gives a lot of hope to visually or hearing-impaired people. It already exists today and it’s very well made.

At the end of the day does the question frighten us simply because our futuristic view of these technologies seems perhaps too far away from current usage?

Technologies have always changed us. Clothes have changed our appearance, and using a hammer has changed the way we look at the world. These are old examples, but it’s pretty much the same with the new technologies, except perhaps that for the first time the technology is no longer external to us. This is already true in the medical field, even if we’re just talking about taking medicine. But today the fact of having devices touching our bodies, which still retain a sacred aspect, is prompting us to raise questions that have never been asked before.

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