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Nicolas Curien

A reliable inspiration for a better 21st century

Prix d'Excellence du Sommet europeen à Paris

par les élites de la diaspora internationale

edition 2024

Interview dans l'edition

Visionnaires du 21e siecle

édition 2024


par Ingrid Vaileanu

Interview Francophone: How can you summarize your career?


Nicolas Curien: Throughout my professional career, I have alternated teaching-research functions and operational functions in senior administration. On the academic side, I was a professor at the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts (CNAM), at the École Polytechnique, at ENSAE and in other major schools. On the institutional side, I was responsible for economic studies at the General Directorate of Telecommunications (the ancestor of Orange), then at the Ministry of Defense, before becoming, in the last part of my career, a member of the 'Arcep (Regulatory Authority for Electronic Communications and Posts), then member of the Superior Audiovisual Council (CSA), which became Arcom (Regulatory Authority for Audiovisual and Online Communication). Whatever my current professional position, I have always felt the need for a double attachment to the sky of ideas and the ground of experience: no effective action without conceptual reflection, nor relevant reflection without anchoring in reality .


Interview Francophone : What are your topics of interest in 2024?


Nicolas Curien: Mainly, the following three.

First of all, the evolution of the digital economy and society, which has continued to occupy my mind for several decades, as a researcher or as a public official. Today, at the Academy of Technologies, of which I am a founding member, I am leading a working group on the theme “Generative AI and misinformation”, with a view to taking stock of the situation and formulating some recommendations.

Then, the progression of digital terrestrial radio using DAB+ (Digital Audio Broadcasting) technology, a major project that I helped to get out of the rut when I led the “Radios and digital audio at the CSA” working group. The deployment of this digital broadcasting technology, replacing analog FM, is essential to preserve the sovereignty of radio operators vis-à-vis internet players, which would be lost in the event of a switch too early and brutal towards the all IP.

Finally, and this may surprise you... I am interested in the conceptualization of the human perception of the passing of time, at the individual and collective level. In particular, how could we characterize the speed of time, its apparent acceleration, or sometimes its slowing down? What relationships exist between three forms of time: the time of our watches, that of our experiences and the time that we subjectively feel? On the basis of empirical findings and points of convergence with psychophysics or cognitive psychology, I conjecture a "law of three times", according to which the rate of distortion of "subjective" time in relation to "objective" time is proportional to the rate of change that animates experiential time. This could definitely be a topic for a future conversation!


Interview Francophone : As an economist, what do you think is the main transformation due to the rise of digital technologies?


Nicolas Curien: The digital transition has caused an economic disruption: we have moved from an economy of variable costs and utilities depending on volumes to an economy of fixed costs and utilities. In other words, the costs and utilities of digital services hardly depend on the quantities produced and consumed: once a material network infrastructure and an intangible data infostructure are installed, both sufficiently sized, the cost and utility of these " social equipment” are almost independent of the number of bits transported or processed through them. It follows that, in the digital economy, value is not linked to the act of production or consumption of a certain quantity of service, as in the pre-digital economy, but that it is linked to the provision of access to a global resource, a sort of “digital Ali’s cave”, symbol of an economy of abundance rather than scarcity.

In this economy of access, and no longer of use, the fundamentals of the neoclassical economy are shaken up: the unit price becomes zero, which at first glance frightened certain operators and suppliers, denouncing a plague of “free”. But these players quickly learned to sell access rather than units, that is to say, price on a fixed price basis rather than on volume. As for content creators, authors and artists, they can continue to be paid in proportion to their respective audiences, but the amount distributed to them overall is indexed to a number of subscriptions and not to a number of plays. This recomposition of the value chain and the formation of a co-production system bringing together resource operators, service providers, and users themselves, are mechanisms of industrial organization characteristic of the digital era.


Interview Francophone : What is your prospective vision of digital society?


Nicolas Curien: Contrary to the initial hope of its founders, around thirty years ago, the digital web has not today become a space for sharing, knowledge and community of interests; even rather the opposite, with the proliferation of fake news and hatred online. The commercial logic of the platforms, based on the attention economy – the more we keep the Internet user in front of their screen, the more advertising revenue we earn – got the better of the early libertarian utopia: broadcasting sensational or falsified content brings in indeed much more than promoting the true and the authentic.

Can we reverse the current? Yes, I believe it, with the optimism of will! The antidote to the spread of fake news is the systematic exercise of critical thinking, while the remedy to online violence is the resurgence of humanism. To progress in this direction, we must resolutely move from the current “connected individualism”, where everyone only pursues their own interests online, showing themselves or hiding themselves without ever sharing or building with others, towards a future “solidarity connection ", where such sharing and such collective construction instead become the rule rather than the exception.

In the Tintin album “We Walked on the Moon”, Professor Tournesol must cut off the rocket's engine, which will cause weightlessness, and he then strongly recommends to the passengers to “behave”. Everyone clings as much as possible to the walls of the rocket, with the exception of the Dupond-Duponts who choose to hold each other. They then float in the cabin and all the characters laugh at them. But they are the ones who are right! Assimilating weightlessness to the digital transition, an enlightening allegory derives from it: connected individualism means refusing the transition by clinging to the outdated benchmarks of the pre-digital world, while solidarity connection means swimming together and without hindrance in the digital space!


Interview Francophone : What projects are you planning together with the Scientific Diaspora of Excellence in Europe?


Nicolas Curien: I am particularly interested in the developments of your deeptech project Xvaluator, qualifying artificial intelligence. After the purely symbolic path of expert systems, then the purely connectionist path of neural networks, AI is now embarking on a third hybrid path, combining previous approaches. In a way, it’s about instilling a little human intelligence into an AI, so that the latter does better than just imitate the “effects” of human reasoning and also incorporates some of the mechanisms of this reasoning.

If my understanding is correct, data. I also understand that this tool, inspired by the theory of social choice, circumvents the Condorcet paradox (non-transitivity of collective preferences) by relying on Borda-style weighted aggregation methods, reflecting not only the order but also the intensity of individual preferences. This way of doing things amounts in a way to introducing a “critical sense” functionality into an AI model, based on the principle of the wisdom of the multitude. The model then behaves like a collective expert.

Within the nebula of possible applications, it seems to me that the tracking of fake news on social networks, necessary for the preservation of a healthy digital lifestyle, figures prominently. All that remains for me to do is wish the start-up Xvaluator the best success!


Interview Francophone : What is your wish for the generations of the 21st century?


Nicolas Curien: The generations of the 21st century will have the immense chance, compared to previous ones, of experiencing, in the course of a single lifetime, a series of several industrial, and therefore economic and societal, revolutions. The next revolution underway is that resulting from the convergence of artificial intelligence, nanotechnologies and biomedical technologies. Soon AI will penetrate beneath the skin! Enough to literally give us goosebumps! In order to master these developments, the risks of which are as high as the promises, that is to say immense, future generations will have to demonstrate great enthusiasm, as well as great confidence accompanied by great vigilance. .

How can we increase human capabilities without creating unbearable inequalities? How to manage economically and socially a significant increase in life expectancy? How to behave in a world where robots could acquire a form of consciousness, to the point of passing for humans? How can we resist the sirens of trans-humanism and hold firm to the bar of a strong and enlightened humanist ethic? 

To face these critical questions, the generations that follow us will have to know how to give meaning to innovation and not just a direction. They will have to combine the principle of audacity, an essential driver of innovation, and the principle of precaution, guarantor of sustainability. The beautiful motto of the Academy of Technologies marks their path: “For reasoned, chosen and shared progress”. Beautiful hike!

And to conclude, I give you this inspiring sentence from my father Hubert Curien, former Minister of Research: “I would like to return to Earth, for a moment, in a thousand years, just long enough to see what thirty generations of scientists will have been able to discover and what men of science will be in the mood to say.

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