Orange and the scientific community — Interview with Gérard Berry

Specialist in the computerisation of objects, main creator of the programming language Esterel, winner of the CNRS gold medal, professor at the Collège de France and member of the French Academy of Sciences, Gérard Berry accepted the presidency of the Orange Scientific Council in 2020. In this article, the renowned computer scientist presents the role of this institution and sheds light on some of the issues surrounding the relationship between science and industry in the digital revolution.

“Doubt and questioning are an integral part of the scientific method”

What is the mission of the Orange Scientific Council?

It is an advisory body that aims to help the company’s management in its understanding of the world by providing it with advice and recommendations on broader scientific issues that concern it. We are, of course, interested in the so-called “hard” sciences—IT, telecoms, networks etc.—but also hugely, and increasingly, in the disciplines that cover the social aspects of technology and innovation. This broad spectrum is reflected in the Council’s composition, which intentionally brings together people with varied expertise: robotics and artificial intelligence with Raja Chatila, distributed systems with Anne-Marie Kermarrec, network virtualisation with Olivier Festor, medicine and space with Claudie Haigneré, but also history with Valérie Schafer and economics with Pierre-Noël Giraud.


Why do you think it’s essential for a company like Orange to invest in research and maintain close links with the scientific community?

In a changing world, not conducting research is like condemning yourself in the more or less long term. There are many examples of large companies that have disappeared, or simply lost their leadership, because they failed to understand the significance of major technological innovations: Previously, IBM missed the potential of the PC, which had emerged from its own labs; and, more recently, we have seen a giant like Intel edged out by ARM after missing the shift towards mobile chips. Because doubt and questioning are an integral part of the scientific method, companies that feed on the work of researchers are less prone to excessive pride — less focused on the knowledge and models of the past.

In the case of Orange, it seems to me that this issue is all the more important because we are living in exceptional times: We are witnessing the convergence of computing and telecommunications, which are becoming completely integrated and blended together. And Orange is one of the few—if not the only—French player to fully embrace this phenomenon, to try to understand all the dimensions of this convergence and its multiple impacts in terms of mastery of technology, infrastructure, applications, security, competition, social impacts etc.


How and on which topics does the Scientific Council work?

The great virtue of this institution is that it pushes people to put their ideas on the table and synthesise them. Each session is organised around a theme, which is prepared in a very professional way by establishing contacts with top specialists in each topic. In essence, the topics discussed reflect the diversity of Orange’s research and its interactions with the academic world, that of the major institutions of the basic and applied sciences. This ranges from issues related to the computerisation of the world—distributed computing, security, data analysis, etc.—to the major societal questions posed by digital technology: protection of privacy, environmental footprint, acceptability of new uses, human/machine interactions etc.


You have long been committed to increasing public education in sciences, particularly computer science: How does the current “digital revolution” make this issue even more important to you?

I have noticed that, whilst software is everywhere in our lives these days, the same cannot be said of knowledge of IT. In France, in particular, we have world-leading higher education in this discipline but it is still far too absent from secondary and primary education.

This can be seen at an individual level, with a real digital divide in the population, the negative effects of which appear even starker during this health crisis, when both employees and citizens are being asked to use digital tools more and more. But that is also true at company level: For example, an industry cannot be sustainably protected if its employees do not share a minimum knowledge of cybersecurity. Likewise, the promises of digital technology in the healthcare sector will not come true if doctors do not focus more heavily and intensively on the functioning of devices, networks, software, databases and algorithms that play an increasing role in their daily practice.

In general, there is a profound lack of education in IT and networks. People know how to use these technologies but they have no knowledge of the concepts behind them or how they work. And this limits their ability to make free and informed choices — for example, with respect to the “fake free” model, where the Internet user, often unknowingly, pays for the content they consume with their personal data, which is resold for advertising purposes.

I believe that, in order not to be dependent on or a victim of technology, you must first know and understand it. That’s why I spend a great deal of time teaching about and raising awareness of these issues.


Finally, you bring an element of the famous pataphysics of Alfred Jarry to the Orange Scientific Council. How can this intellectual exercise—the “science of imaginary solutions”—offer a form of inspiration to the research community?

I have the honour of being Regent of Deformatics at the College. It’s a way of looking at my subject differently: Computer science is the science of information; deformatics is the opposite! It’s guided by the words of Oscar Wilde: “Lean on principles, one day they’ll end up giving way”; it’s not a question of thinking about disinformation, but about deformable subjects. The Internet, for example, has no shape; one cannot draw a definitive map of it, it’s intangible.

The benefit of this kind of intellectual exercise is thinking about scientific subjects differently — not always thinking in a linear way and sometimes doing things that seem unnecessary. I believe this stance is important for researchers. Because a researcher who thinks he has “discovered” something once and for all is certainly someone to be wary of; science is never finished. We must keep moving forward, moving on to something else.

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