AI: a new technological revolution?

These discourses refer to the promises of economic and social progress associated with technological change and technosciences in general. As part of her thesis project carried out under the supervision of Professors Yves Gingras (History Department) and Marie-Jean Meurs (Computer Science Department), the young researcher is interested in artificial intelligence (AI) as emblematic case of the economy of promise and to the scientific, economic and political actors who promote it.

Florence Lussier-Lejeune co-edited, with researchers Guillaume Dandurand, Daniel Letendre and Marie-Jean Meurs, the collective work “Techno-scientific expectations and promises”, which will be published this fall by Presses de l’Universit de Montral. Bringing together the contributions of some twenty researchers from various backgrounds, this book illustrates how the economy of promise permeates scientific practices, economic projects and public policies. It discusses the technological promises surrounding three major contemporary issues: AI and digital technology, health, and energy and the environment.

“The rhetoric of promise has performative effects, as it incites action, stimulates industrial development, leads public authorities to develop policies and invest in certain sectors, such as that of AI, helping to define research priorities and shape techno-scientific activity,” says Florence Lussier-Lejeune, doctoral student in science, technology and

A powerful rhetoric

The economy of promises is based on a powerful rhetorical apparatus which makes it possible to attract attention, to generate a horizon of expectations, to mobilize resources, financial in particular, in a highly competitive context. “The rhetoric of promise has performative effects, as it incites action, stimulates industrial development, leads public authorities to develop policies and invest in certain sectors, such as that of AI, helping to define research priorities and shape techno-scientific activity,” observes the doctoral student.

According to Florence Lussier-Lejeune, the discourse of the promoters of new technologies is often marked by a deterministic conception. “Technological determinism disregards the historical, economic, political and social dynamics that favor the emergence and development of technologies. It conveys a linear vision of progress, as if technologies were deployed in an inescapable and autonomous way. We know, however, that techno-scientific projects are subject to a degree of uncertainty and do not always materialize. »

The researcher recognizes the innovative potential of new technologies, such as the development of deep learning algorithms – recognition of texts, images, speech, decision support – but she believes that the predictions of their promoters must be rigorous analysis. Twenty years ago, biotechnologies, genomics and above all nanotechnologies, which are at the very origin of the concept of the economy of promise, were supposed to revolutionize all industrial sectors. Public decision-makers had then invested considerable amounts for results that were, on the whole, modest. “Today, it is AI that is raising new expectations,” she says. Tomorrow it may be quantum computing. »

“It is predicted that the technologies associated with AI will have cross-cutting effects, similar to those of the steam engine during the industrial revolution. »

Passion for AI

In recent years, AI has been on everyone’s lips. “A turning point occurred in 2012 with ImageNet, an image recognition competition revealing the potential of deep learning algorithms,” notes Florence Lussier-Lejeune. Sensing commercial interest, big players like Google have taken interest in some concrete advances in AI, which has created a domino effect. »

Advances in AI are mainly linked to a current of research called “connectionism”. This is based on the development of machine learning and automatic learning systems. “Since the 2000s, connectionism has generated enthusiasm due to the performance of deep learning algorithms, the increased accessibility of large amounts of data and the increase in the computing power of computers”, notes the doctoral student.

The research community in Canada and internationally maintains that AI will have social impacts in multiple fields – work, transport, health, justice, education – already guiding the development of public policies, the establishment of commissions advisory bodies and the creation of observatories. “It is predicted that the technologies associated with AI will have cross-cutting effects, similar to those of the steam engine during the industrial revolution, observes Florence Lussier-Lejeune. We also rekindle the scarecrow of the inevitable technological lag if public funds are not quickly granted to finance the development of algorithmic technologies. »

At the start of the pandemic, AI was presented in various publications as a powerful weapon for waging war on the coronavirus, predicting its evolution and reducing its spread through surveillance mechanisms. “Faced with the mixed success of certain applications, in particular those relating to the tracing of infected people, the enthusiasm has died down,” underlines the student.

“Consulting firms play an important role in making projections on the economic and social impact of AI, without always understanding the methodology on which they are based,” she adds.

Massive investments

The development of AI is at the center of global competition, as some countries seek to position themselves as leaders. In Canada, federal and provincial (Qubec) contributions have amounted, since 2016, to nearly a billion dollars. This sum is intended for academic and private research in AI, for the benefit of the people and companies who are making the promises of a long-awaited revolution. Canada can count on internationally renowned researchers, such as Yoshua Bengio of the University of Montreal, considered one of the founding fathers of the deep learning “revolution”.

In Qubec, the AI ​​“ecosystem” is based on various pillars, including a state-subsidized industrial cluster (Scale.ai), the Qubec Institute of Artificial Intelligence (MILA), which brings together people working basic research, technology transfers, business start-ups and teaching, an International Observatory on the Societal Impacts of AI and Digital Technology (OBVIA), which brings together the expertise of some 260 researchers from 18 post-secondary institutions , as well as the Montreal Declaration for Responsible AI Development.

In its March 2019 budget, the Legault government announced sums totaling $329 million for AI, most of which was intended for four research and technology transfer organizations created between 2017 and 2018, namely MILA, IVADO, IVADO Labs and Scale.ai. “These sums may seem tiny compared to the billions invested annually by China and the United States, but, on the Quebec scale, they significantly contribute to the concentration of resources in this area of ​​research,” says Florence Lussier-Lejeune.

The development of AI in Qubec is closely linked to a triad of players: the state, industry and the scientific community. “As investments in new technologies are costly, state support is essential, particularly with regard to venture capital,” says the doctoral student. Consulting firms also play an important role in making projections on the economic and social repercussions of AI, without always understanding the methodology on which they are based. »

A clectic journey

Before undertaking her doctorate, Florence Lussier-Lejeune completed her undergraduate and master’s studies in marketing and e-commerce at HEC Montreal, as well as communications studies at the Catholic University of Louvain, in Belgium. Professionally, she worked in digital marketing at National Bank for ten years, from 2008 to 2017.

“During these years within this banking institution, I myself took part in the discursive excitement surrounding new technologies,” confides the doctoral student. But these experiences have also taught me to assess the real potential of these tools and have fueled my interest in doctoral studies in science, technology and society, which allow me to take a reflective and critical step back. »

From 2018 to 2020, the doctoral student obtained UQAM agent and research coordinator contracts at the Interuniversity Center for Research in Science and Technology (CIRST) and at the Center for Research on Social Innovations (CRISES). “I am increasingly interested in social innovations, partnership research and the transfer of academic knowledge, particularly in the community setting. This is why I recently collaborated on research coordinated by UQAM’s Service aux collectivites on evaluation practices in community organizations. »

Claude Gauvreau is a writer for the Actualits UQAM website. He holds a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in communication (UQAM). He has worked at UQAM since 1997.

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