Meet millions of French people in their nation’s AI Café

Written by GIlles Babinet, France’s Digital Champion

It’s probably happened to each of us: initiating a debate on artificial intelligence, in the family for example, inevitably raises worrying questions: everyone comes from their own point of view and, let’s face it, it’s not not the reliable information that dominates, but rather the spectacular. Many of our fellow citizens are, for example, convinced that artificial intelligence will destroy jobs en masse. However, according to the most recent academic research on this subject, this is anything but certain.


Some studies even suggest that the opposite hypothesis could prevail (for example, the OECD Employment Outlook 2023) and envisage that AI will lead to mass creation of quality jobs. Now, you have never heard of this work, have you? Concerns also relate to the endangerment of democracy (which seems to me a much more tangible risk), deepfakes (similarly), the appearance of artificial general intelligence (AI) or even conscience machines and all the supposed risks that this entails, etc.


In reality, AI may well be the epitome of fear; a fear of acceleration quite simply, even stronger than that of climate change, of the globalization of decommissioning and I don’t know what else. But fear is not a good advisor, it prevents us from building collectively, it does not nourish democracy and it fuels populist movements whose very essence is fear. And then, AI is also worrying because it is an exogenous technology: an American technology, that of people who speak English, that of those who are comfortable with globalization, that of an elite who benefits from technology. This is to the detriment of the greatest number who suffer from it. It is difficult to predict the consequences of this technology in all these fields. On the other hand, it is certain that by allowing everyone to better understand what it covers, the risks of monopolization and misuse by particular interests will be much lower.


It is from this observation of the existence of a strong apprehension that the idea of ​​“the AI Café” was born within the National Digital Council (Cnnum). Initially, we organized around a hundred debates throughout France. Whether they are retirees, college students, experts in the field of IT, business leaders, craftsmen… the desire to debate and compare one’s perception of this to others what is artificial intelligence appeared very strong to us. For my part, the experience also extended to my summer vacation where, visiting rural departments, I was really impressed to see the extent to which collective myths existed with regard to this technology.


The idea of ​​AI Café is therefore to meet all those who wish to discuss AI. Potentially millions of French people of all ages and from all social origins… I am sometimes told that we must above all train everyone in AI, rather than debate. From experience (I have given quite a few courses and produced MOOCs on this subject), training is only effective if it is preceded by the dissemination of a general culture of the theme considered. However, with regard to AI, an IFOP survey highlights that 63% of French people do not wish to be trained in it. And in fact, who would actually want to be trained in a technology perceived as dangerous, harmful to employment and developed by libertarians behind platforms like Facebook or Amazon, whose consequences on fake news and low-paid jobs are the prerogative? We do not presume the outcome of this debate. 


If some of you (including me) have strong convictions in this regard, we really have to play the game, in good faith and that is what we want to do. There is, beyond the conviction that we must reclaim our future, the idea that it is necessary to “indigenize” this technology, to orient it on what our values, our choices are; “Re-encapacitate” is a bit of an ugly word, but one that Cnnum uses frequently, because it is very appropriate.

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