[VivaTech] The Stars of Stage One: words from the tech world visionaries

The star power of VivaTech grows with every edition. In addition to an opening keynote by French President Emmanuel Macron, this year brought an unprecedented number of global business leaders to Stage One. Let’s take a look at the main takeaways from this star-studded event, that shone a spotlight on AI and commitments to changing the world for the better.

A presidential welcome to the ecosystem at home and beyond

For the 3rd year in a row, French President Emmanuel Macron has shown his commitment to VivaTech as a global rendezvous for innovation that combines new technology and a vision for the world of tomorrow. In his introductory keynote, he stressed that “what we are currently doing is essential in France,” reminding the audience that “there are multiple dynamic start-ups that are transforming the country, in Paris and across its regions.” President Macron also underlined that “2.5 billion euros have been invested in French Tech in 2017, a fivefold increase” and that “thanks to the BPI’s involvement, we are making up for lost time”—notably referencing “IoT champion” Actility and its 75 million euros raised. “You, start-ups, SMEs and multinational groups, have the solution.”

Finally, Mr. Macron addressed that with technological growth comes disruption on multiple fronts, and the necessity to help society adapt. He specifically referenced artificially intelligence, stating that “I do believe in AI – I presented initiatives to support it and there is a lot of commitment to AI here. We have to build regulation.”

“AI and machine learning are fundamentally good for humanity”

As Maurice Lévy and former Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt noted in their “fireside chat”, the word “AI” is a serious contender for the most-used-word-at-VivaTech-2018 prize. Eric Schmidt noted that digital innovation has changed crucially with machine learning: “Back when I was programming—algorithmically—I had to write precisely what the computer had to do; the new model today lets you train the computer instead.” Mr. Schmidt put forward a wholly positive vision of AI: “AI and Machine Learning are fundamentally good for humanity. It makes every citizen smarter, from the most educated to the least; it allows you to live longer. It helps social systems be more fluid. Making people smarter is a net good.” Until true AI accuracy is achieved, its applications will be advisory, he believes—concluding that he doesn’t see AI “as a replacement for humans, but as a way to make you smarter.”

IBM is talkin’ ‘bout a revolution

This vision was taken further by IBM CEO Gina Rometty, who based her speech on AI’s “Exponential Impact”. She approved Emmanuel Macron’s use of the word “revolution” to describe the current state of the ecosystem, arguing that “We are at a once-in-a-generation moment of great consequence: when a technology change and a business change happen at the same time instead of sequentially.” Her own company provides an example of profound reinvention around data and AI, not just to “outlearn” and become more competitive, “but to do things that are good for society.” Exponential impact, she argued, can only happen if society places its trust in new technologies. As such, she outlined a vision of AI based on 3 principles: AI’s purpose is to augment human beings, not replace them; data, and the application insights that come out of it, should belong to its creator; AI should be transparent and explainable, not a black box. In line with this commitment, Mrs Rometty announced the IBM Call for Code, a $30-million initiative to address “the world’s toughest challenges” through Cloud and AI solutions, starting with responding to natural disasters.

Mark Zuckerberg & tech’s transition to responsibility

A comparatively last-minute addition to the line-up, Mark Zuckerberg’s fireside chat with Maurice Lévy was among the most highly-anticipated happenings. Analysing his company’s evolution in this informal conversation, the Facebook CEO noted that “for most of Facebook’s history, we focused on the good that can come from connecting people together,” mentioning that Facebook’s tools have helped more than tens of millions of small businesses reach their customers and grow. He conceded, however, “that we haven’t taken a broad enough view of the bad that can come from these tools,” mentioning “fake news,” election tampering or developers abusing user privacy protections. He described Facebook’s efforts to be more proactive in dealing with those and highlighted the contributions of AI in this regard. Asked about the evolution of the tech sector, Mr. Zuckerberg described a “big transition of the tech industry [towards] responsibility,” and “making sure we’re proactively working to amplify the good that people do and minimize the bad.”

“Uber 2.0”—a more responsible partner

Mark Zuckerberg’s diagnosis seems well-founded, and many tech ecosystem luminaries on stage voiced commitments to positive social change. Before VivaTech, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi had stated that the company “had focused too much on growth and not enough on the people who made that growth possible,” notably announcing new workers’ protections for the European independent workers on its platform. During his fireside chat titled “Uber 2.0”, he recognized that “we weren’t investing in our 3 million driver partners the way we should. […] We weren’t treating them as partners, so we started to do so.” He also related his early initiative, upon joining Uber, to crowdsource a new set of values and culture, from the bottom up. Finally, Mr. Khosrowshahi outlined his vision of future urban centres with Uber’s Elevate project for Vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircrafts. “Ultimately, transportation has to be shared, it has to be electric, and it has to be in 3 dimensions”—unlike today’s transportation grid, which is in 2 dimensions. “That’s what Elevate is all about.”

Orange: the time for win-win investments in Africa is now

Of course, this sense of responsibility extends beyond the borders of Europe. In line with the event’s focus on Africa, Mr. Macron spoke to African entrepreneurs, calling on them to join the Digital Africa platform (opens in a new window) and affirming that “Africa is part of the future of tech, and tech is part of the future of Africa.”

During a “Tech for Africa” panel discussion that included Orange Chairman & CEO Stéphane Richard, social entrepreneur Thione Niang stressed that Africa is at a crossroads. There is an unprecedented level of innovation to drastically improve the continent—mentioning, for instance, the fact that farmers can bank through their phone using Orange Money. He stressed that “this is the greatest time to invest in Africa and get the best ROI … we need outside partners, but only in a win-win situation; gone are the days of doing business in Africa without social responsibility.” Stéphane Richard echoed this notion, recalling that Africa is a long-term priority for Orange, which invests up to 20% of its revenue there annually to meet technical and financial challenges ahead; African mobile internet traffic, for instance, is expected to increase fifteen-fold in the next 3 years. “We believe there is long-term return to these investments, and we want to be a global player in new services like mobile banking, energy and e-commerce,” Stéphane Richard explained, “but I would also like to see many more outside players invest in the continent. And I also agree that we have a great responsibility; we can’t just be there to generate profits.”

Stéphane Richard also noted that, although there remains a lot of infrastructure to build, “Africa is, to some extent, already a connected continent. If you take smartphone penetration, for instance, it’s twice that of India.” One of the most pressing issues, he argued, is that too little capital is invested in African start-ups. “We, at Orange, want to be a player and investor that really promotes innovation in Africa.” Crucial to these efforts are the Group’s available support programs, including African Orange Fabs and its more than 30 start-ups accelerated, and the dedicated Orange Digital Ventures structure for Africa, which started with €60M in funding.