Fragmentation Of Intelligence, How AI Blurs The Big Picture

A few decades ago, researchers dreamed of creating a machine capable of thinking as well as, or better than, humans. As the world becomes increasingly specialized, artificial intelligence can undermine the art of perspective.

Roger-Pol Droit

PARIS â€" See things from above, from the top of the hill. That old advice derives from the Stoics and has been cited in many ways throughout Western history. The meaning remains the same: to step back and see "the bigger picture," as they say. The ancients saw it as a spiritual exercise.

Since then, throughout periods of modernization, this concept has been used to construct global theories, make parallels and provide holistic views. This trend is now shifting as we are become increasingly specialized. In other words, intelligence has become fragmented.

This is the case with artificial intelligence. In the 1960s, the holy grail was a machine capable of thinking like a human. Around Marvin Minsky â€" an MIT researcher and author of The Society of Mind â€" teams were working hard, with big budgets, to develop this ultimate automaton that would deduce, compare, judge and decide like us. Better than us. Yet this researcher â€" who died Jan. 24, 2016 â€" was disillusioned when I met him in 2011 at Cambridge. He was aware of the downfall of this adventure, which had been the flagship project of the 20th century, along with space exploration.

Today there are countless small intelligent machines, but they merely execute defined tasks. Some simply vacuum the carpet or count our heartbeats, while other, more ambitious ones are able to manage urban traffic and financial transactions, or to compete with professional chess players. They are all excellent but have restricted capacity. The dream of "real" artificial intelligence â€" challenging that of humans, or even surpassing it â€" has given way to another reality: useful but idiotic robots.

Smile? â€" Photo â€" Steven Lilley

Meanwhile, human intelligence seems to have followed down the same slope. Larger advances have occurred over the last 30 years than over the last 30 centuries, but we know less and less about the structure and interconnectedness of the whole. In the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, which Georg Hegel wrote two centuries ago, philosophers claimed to embrace the thoughts surrounding a holistic reality in an attempt to restore the internal logic of world history. Nowadays no philosopher shows such ambition. For a long time, problems, perspectives and skills have been disjointed.

Is it irreparable? Maybe not. Counter movements are on the rise, among machines as well as humans. The widespread fragmentation is now countered with all-encompassing connection. Networks today are linking sources of artificial intelligence, but also linking humans and their disciplines, experiences and cultures.

Some envision the unified abilities of artificial intelligence ultimately becoming dominant. This fantasy belongs to science fiction, not the real world. In the real world, which also includes the virtual, the digital revolution facilitates the emergence of a global human thought.

These are crucial questions: What is our common aspiration in de-fragmenting intelligence? What are the conceptual means at our disposal to achieve this? To put an end to our expertise is not enough. We can't gloss over things and make them look deceptively good from a distance. Contemplation from above cannot be improvised. We, instead, must find the conceptual tools that allow us to put the fragments of our world back together.

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How China Flipped From Tech Copycat To Tech Leader

Long perceived as a country chasing Western tech, China's business and technological innovations are now influencing the rest of the world. Still lagging on some fronts, the future is now up for grabs.

At the World Semiconductor Conference in Nanjing, China, on June 9

Emmanuel Grasland

BEIJING — China's tech tycoons have fallen out of favor: Jack Ma (Alibaba), Colin Huang (Pinduoduo), Richard Liu (Tencent) and Zhang Yiming (ByteDance) have all been pressured by Beijing to leave their jobs or step back from a public role. Their time may be coming to an end, but the legacy remains exceptional. Under their reign, China has become a veritable window to the global future of technology.

TikTok is the perfect example. Launched in 2016, the video messaging app has been downloaded over two billion times worldwide. It has passed the 100-million active user mark in the United States. Thanks to TikTok's success, ByteDance, its parent company, has reached an exceptional level of influence on the internet.

For a long time, the West viewed China's digital ecosystem as a cheap imitation of Silicon Valley. The European and American media described the giants of the Asian superpower as the "Chinese Google" or "Chinese Amazon." But the tables have turned.

No Western equivalent to WeChat

The Asian superpower has forged cutting-edge business models that do not exist elsewhere. It is impossible to find a Western equivalent to the WeChat super-app (1.2 billion users), which is used for shopping as much as for making a medical appointment or obtaining credit.

The flow of innovation is now changing direction.

The roles have actually reversed: In a recent article, Les Echos describes the California-based social network IRL, as a "WeChat of the Western world."

Grégory Boutté, digital and customer relations director at the multinational luxury group Kering, explains, "The Chinese digital ecosystem is incredibly different, and its speed of evolution is impressive. Above all, the flow of innovation is now changing direction."

This is illustrated by the recent creation of "live shopping" events in France, which are hosted by celebrities and taken from a concept already popular in China.

10,000 new startups per day

There is an explosion of this phenomenon in the digital sphere. Rachel Daydou, Partner & China General Manager of the consulting firm Fabernovel in Shanghai, says, "With Libra, Facebook is trying to create a financial entity based on social media, just as WeChat did with WeChat Pay. Facebook Shop looks suspiciously like WeChat's mini-programs. Amazon Live is inspired by Taobao Live and YouTube Shopping by Douyin, the Chinese equivalent of TikTok."

In China, it is possible to go to fully robotized restaurants or to give a panhandler some change via mobile payment. Your wallet is destined to be obsolete because your phone can read restaurant menus and pay for your meal via a QR Code.

The country uses shared mobile chargers the way Europeans use bicycles, and is already testing electric car battery swap stations to avoid 30 minutes of recharging time.

Michael David, chief omnichannel director at LVMH, says, "The Chinese ecosystem is permanently bubbling with innovation. About 10,000 start-ups are created every day in the country."

China is also the most advanced country in the electric car market. With 370 models at the end of 2020, it had an offering that was almost twice as large as Europe's, according to the International Energy Agency.

Photo of a phone's screen displaying the logo of \u200bChina's super-app WeChat

China's super-app WeChat

Omar Marques/SOPA Images/ZUMA

The whole market runs on tech

Luca de Meo, CEO of French automaker Renault, said in June that China is "ahead of Europe in many areas, whether it's electric cars, connectivity or autonomous driving. You have to be there to know what's going on."

As a market, China is also a source of technological inspiration for Western companies, a world leader in e-commerce, solar, mobile payments, digital currency and facial recognition. It has the largest 5G network, with more than one million antennas up and running, compared to 400,000 in Europe.

Self-driving cars offer an interesting point of divergence between China and the West.

Just take the number of connected devices (1.1 billion), the time spent on mobile (six hours per day) and, above all, the magnitude of data collected to deploy and improve artificial intelligence algorithms faster than in Europe or the United States.

The groundbreaking field of self-driving cars offers an interesting point of divergence between China and the West. Artificial intelligence guru Kai-Fu Lee explains that China believes that we should teach the highway to speak to the car, imagining new services and rethinking cities to avoid cars crossing pedestrians, while the West does not intend to go that far.

Still lagging in some key sectors

There are areas where China is still struggling, such as semiconductors. Despite a production increase of nearly 50% per year, the country produces less than 40% of the chips it consumes, according to official data. This dependence threatens its ambitions in artificial intelligence, telecoms and autonomous vehicles. Chinese manufacturers work with an engraving fineness of 28 nm or more, far from those of Intel, Samsung or TSMC. They are unable to produce processors for high-performance PCs.

China's aerospace industry is also lagging behind the West. There are also no Chinese players among the top 20 life science companies on the stock market and there are doubts surrounding the efficacy of Sinovac and Sinopharm's COVID-19 vaccines. As of 2019, the country files more patents per year than the U.S., but far fewer are converted into marketable products.

Beijing knows its weaknesses and is working to eliminate them. Adopted in March, the nation's 14th five-year plan calls for a 7% annual increase in R&D spending between now and 2025, compared with 12% under the previous plan. Big data aside, that is basic math anyone can understand.
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