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He is a modern thinker and a computer scientist with great contribution to different fields of technology, internationally acclaimed for his pioneering work in the field of information systems design and verification. For his contribution to the theory and application of verification methods, he was awarded the Turing Award 2007, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in Informatics.
By Mia Kollia
Translated by Alexandros Theodoropoulos
His devotion to his passion is proverbial, while his philosophical view of the world and the things around us stays always solid and strong, deeply erudite in whatever is called upon to analyse. The publication "Understanding and changing the world" (published by ARMOS), concerns "the importance of knowledge as an intangible entity" as it is written on the back cover.
A conversation with him is like walking on a tightrope: nothing is left to chance, while every approach of his always has a social, political and humanitarian background. A discussion with him is a journey into knowledge but also into the questioning of many things that we take for granted or disdain, as ordinary people, in our daily lives.
What was the most crucial step in your journey, for example a turning point or a crucial decision that changed your life?
In August 1970, I left Greece as a graduate of Electrical Engineering. I was eager to become a researcher and above all I didn’t want to stay in the country due to the unbearable political situation. I was in Grenoble, France, where I started postgraduate studies in Nuclear Physics. But very quickly, fate decided otherwise. From the beginning, I felt a strong attraction to computers that I was encountering for the first time in my life. I was fascinated by the idea that the machines even had some substandard "smart" behavior.
I then met the director of the newly established Grenoble Institute of Applied Mathematics and Informatics. He was a very kind man and an excellent mathematician. He welcomed me and listened to my ideas for connecting dynamic and information systems. Within a week I decided to drop out of my studies in Physics and completely changed course, starting studies in Informatics.
I remember the frustration of my parents in Greece who didn’t understand my choice. I tried, in vain, to explain through letters why I made this turn and what exactly was the object of this new science.
So I started my career in Informatics which at that time was just a humble branch of Mathematics. No one could have imagined changing the world for the next 70 years. And of course I couldn’t even imagine how nice would be the journey I started somewhat defiantly obeying more my intuition than logic.
Do you think that the acquisition of knowledge or money is more important today and how is the concept of knowledge defined? And how much can one resist money?
I would start by explaining that knowledge is information that allows us either to understand and anticipate the world or to act to meet our needs and improve our lives. Of course, I don’t mean only scientific and technical knowledge, but mainly the knowledge that the mind develops by learning from its experiences and uses that to judge correctly. Just being in a position to know something, is not enough. You need to have common sense to manage everyday problems. Jean Piaget typically says that intelligence is not what you know but what you do when you don’t know.
I think this definition of knowledge nullifies the dilemma. Knowledge is also a prerequisite for making money. And this is a means to more comfort and freedom, as long as we have the knowledge to make the right choices. Without knowledge money loses its usefulness and can become really dangerous.
Resistance to money is a moral problem. And our behavior in this case is directly influenced by the current system of social and political values. In the Middle Ages "selling as much as you could and buying as cheaply as you could", was a grave sin, a moral transgression, and sometimes a criminal offense. For centuries the pursuit of wealth just for wealth was reprehensible, and its pompous display resulted in reproach of society. Today the pursuit of profit by any means is considered capriciousness and to a certain extent, a virtue. Especially the newly rich of the last decades not only don’t hide their wealth, but also arrogantly display their power and their mythical fortunes. Love for money and the consequent overthrow of the humanitarian and moral values that constitute the foundations of our culture are so sad and disastrous for these societies.
Artificial Intelligence, algorithms, automated tasks: Are these evolution and support to man or submission and unemployment?
Automation of processes and services has the advantage of efficiency. Without the direct intervention of humans we can, in "real time", as we say, control the use of resources (energy, telecommunications, transport, banking) in the best way to achieve economies of scale and quality of life.
A long-standing danger of progressive automation is unemployment, especially for occupations where intensive use of robots will sooner or later prevail. In sectors such as agriculture and manufacturing we will have a gradual reduction of jobs as well as services that can be automated. Professions that require high creativity or aren’t easily systematised, such as scheduling and designing systems or mail distribution, will be at the core of employment. This trend, in addition to the high unemployment rate, will open the gap between well-paid professions that require skills and knowledge, and other more manual jobs. Some argue that job losses will be offset against new needs. But I believe that, overall, the problem of unemployment and the wage gap will become even more acute if radical reforms are not made to adjust the structure of professions and restructure working time.
What is the responsibility of man in terms of the evolution of technology? How do you define technology ethics? Is it a myth that our lives are becoming dangerously automated?
The prevalence of technology that solves many practical problems and makes life more comfortable, results in the loss of some skills that we had developed to solve these problems. So just a few today know how to light a fire by friction, something that prehistoric people knew very well. Nor do they know how to survive in the wild or set up a hut to protect themselves. Tomorrow children may not learn the multiplication table anymore, something very basic in the mathematical education of students until the 20th century.
The question of over-dependence on information technologies is reasonable. What key skills and knowledge do we really need to maintain? The answer is not easy as these technologies do not solve individual problems. They provide complete solutions, which imply another way of life that relieves us of the burden of decision management, offering all kinds of services.
Some people, in order to explain the relative dangers, speak of the parable of the "boiled frog", which is in a pot of water. If we raised the water temperature sharply, the frog would jump out of the pot. If, on the other hand, we raised the temperature gradually, the frog, initially feeling pleasant, would stay in the pot until the end and die.
The use of information technologies must be governed by rules for the protection of individual, social and civil liberties. I can see two dangers in this.
The first is the invasion of privacy on the pretext of monitoring delinquent behavior, such as terrorism and crime. In order to control the behavior of individuals today, there are many systems developed by government agencies and large companies. I will mention the Chinese "Social Credit System", a state reputation system based on artificial intelligence to assess the behavior of citizens with a point accumulation scale (point system). Similar schemes for e-commerce systems are being developed by e-commerce companies as innocent tools for making decisions in dealing with third parties over the Internet. Needless to say, it’s necessary to have a regulatory framework for the use of such tools that violate privacy and can be used to stigmatise or exclude citizens with procedures and criteria that are uncontrollable and questionable.
The second risk comes from the ongoing use of autonomous services and systems in the name of efficiency. The vision for the “Internet of Things” envisions the massive use of autonomous systems to manage critical resources and infrastructure without human intervention. Criteria for decision-making are likely to be so complex that they go beyond human comprehension and control. The danger is not that computers will become smarter than humans but that people will submit to technology.
Have you ever wondered what your life would be like if you had a servant who could satisfy every appetite and desire? Like if there were no obstacles, no difficulties, everything coming to you effortlessly, nothing resisting your appetites?
If man had what his appetite demanded automatically and effortlessly, he would be reduced to a "slow stomach", a digestive tract. If he had been born into a world without adversity, he certainly wouldn’t have been smarter than plants. Even his happiness would be inferior to that of plants, since plants are at least struggling to survive.
If we let computers decide for us - due to laziness or lack of self-confidence - our mental abilities and creativity of thinking will decline. I don’t want to imagine scenarios where a young person decides on a career path based solely on internet information without taking into account his preferences and ultimately his dreams.
What advice would you give to young people today? And what advice would you give to us, the 50-something year old people who are chasing technological developments for our work whereas we weren’t even close to technology?
I advise young people to make a dream come true and claim it with all their might. Happiness depends directly on the ability to understand the world, to believe in your own strengths and above all to create and envision. Of course, such a thing is not given, it can’t be achieved effortlessly. Upbringing, education and origin play a crucial role. If the mind is soft and not touched by the joy of action and creation, then the game is lost in advance.
Since the 1970s, Western societies have shown a hypersensitivity to what can be seen as an intense effort to achieve difficult goals. Everyone is talking about protection of everyone's rights, "non-oppression", and non-coercion. Very few people remember that there are obligations and that – simply put - "good efforts are made". Unfortunately, the slightest effort in any endeavor becomes the rule. We don’t care about the future. The quality criteria that require rigour and precision in the execution of actions have been relaxed. It is with regret that I find that this mentality has prevailed among young people. It’s not the best skill to fight and win in life.
When it comes to our relationship with technology, we need to find a balance, so that it stays at our service. Using it to work and live better by consciously and responsibly managing our freedom. Technology may help our creativity and ideas to emerge, but it can never create something authentic and give birth to groundbreaking ideas.
Analysts say that in ten years there will be jobs, for 60% of which we don’t even know their name or description. How do you approach this?
Over the centuries technological evolution has changed the division of labor between machines and humans. Today we live the phenomenon much more intensely since our machines have replaced not only manual but also mental work. I talked about the disappearance of a large number of jobs in the primary and secondary sectors. Proposals for the complete replacement of humans by intelligent systems are being proved technically impossible with current data - as confirmed by the recent abandonment of the idea of fully autonomous cars by Elon Musk, one of its most ardent supporters. Machines won’t be able to completely replace humans in activities that require creativity and decision-making that involve legal and moral responsibility. We’re talking about research activities, system design, medical, paramedical, educational occupations, security and defense, banking and stock market, judicial, penitentiary and administrative jobs etc. I don’t foresee the emergence of completely new professions but the adaptation of professions that will survive the need for extensive use of technology.
The vision is a "symbiotic autonomy", to use a term of fashion. People and computers will work together to achieve common complex goals. This requires the development of "mutual understanding" processes and appropriate interoperability protocols between people and systems; a technically difficult and scientifically interesting problem which I hope we will have solutions for in the next decade.
How much time does one need to spend out of work to be a successful professional?
I don’t think that success in the professional field is a matter of time. It depends on other quality factors, among which I put the love of what you do first. When you are passionate about your job, time and effort don’t count. Other factors are the spirit of creativity and initiative, the ability to organise your associates administratively and to distinguish who is capable and who is useless or even dangerous.
Work is a big part of our active lives. It will be a burden and suffering if we don’t have the motivation and appetite to succeed.
Is traveling your oxygen? Do you travel to favourite places and experiences?
I like to travel. Travel is for me a rest and an opportunity for reflection and inspiration. I combine most of my travel with professional activities, participation in conferences or invitations for speeches and collaborations in general. So I don’t travel as a simple tourist. Meeting colleagues who invite me helps me get to know their places and people better.
I must mention that over the years my travel interests have shifted. When I was younger I was keen to see something new, to discover something different; especially to get to know the natural environment. I remember being moved by rainforests, coral islands, active volcanoes, and landscapes in the far north.
Today I am not so interested in the natural element. I take my time to study people and their culture. For the last two decades I have been visiting major Asian countries frequently and I have to admit that my contact with their people has led me to radically reconsider some prejudices and take a critical look at Western European culture.
Of course these are also some more important trips that we make regardless of business obligations, like holidays in Greece, France and some areas in Europe. There are places we go and go again because no matter how many times we visit them we aren’t satisfied. I will mention some medieval states in France or some areas in Italy, such as Tuscany.
For Greece I will only say that I love every bit of Greek land. Every time I visit our country I feel the same strong feeling of joy and exaltation. A few years ago I wrote the following:
"Returning from long journeys to impersonal states, I feel a transmutation when I step on Greek soil. Everything takes on a face; stones, light, sea, are transformed like words in poems, like the colours in impressionist paintings”.
Is technology a male-dominated industry? Is there such a separation in life?
There is no scientific data to prove that women are less gifted for technology professions or for any profession. Of course biological differences make them less suitable for physically demanding occupations, which are progressively eliminated thanks to the use of technology. But these differences play an insignificant role in relation to other man-made perspectives which are created by social perceptions and stereotypes towards the role of women. Usually, these differences are spread by poor education and family upbringing. Cultivated by widespread male and female stereotypes: the boy needs to be a "fighter" ready to fight and claim, while the girl should be more timid, destined to live in the "shadow" of a male.
So while in secondary education girls have just as good, if not better, performance than boys, in higher education they lag behind, especially in studies in exact science. A similar finding is the low representation of women in positions that are high in the social and professional hierarchy. As it happens, I participate in committees for the selection of candidates for academic positions where the issue of "positive discrimination" in favour of women or other "minorities" depending on their colour or ethnicity is often raised.
Particularly in North America, organisations and institutions support policies that are characterised by three words: diversity, equality, inclusion. I would like to emphasise that I don’t believe in the effectiveness of such policies. Injustice against women and other minority groups can only be remedied by equal opportunity policies. Enforcing the rules of proportional representation of minorities in high-ranking professions is ineffective and doesn’t ultimately help to redress an injustice that has deeper social roots.
Recently you published your new book, “Understanding and Changing the World”. What pushed you to write it and what do you expect it can achieve?
The book is the result of research I began in the early 1980s, when I realised that my research into applied logic and mathematical theories of languages was directly related to philosophical problems, and in particular to the problem of consciousness and language.
That's when I started reading and being interested in philosophy. I must say that despite my best efforts I haven’t been able to make a conclusion in philosophical theories.
What has also literally impressed me is the existence of closed communities around every philosophical current. Organised around a “priesthood of authorities", they use very hermetic terminology that makes theories inaccessible to the uninitiated and give them prestige in the eyes of the ignorant. So there are existentialists, structuralists, empiricists, Marxists, Hegelians, etc. and each of them philosophise through their own context and from their point of view; clinging to their "truths", ignoring others, without caring how their knowledge can help man to live a life worth living.
I believe that any attempt to articulate our knowledge must respect the laws of the economy of thought, be based on a set of well-established concepts with clearly defined semantic relationships between them.
I decided, in the late '90s, to articulate my views on the world. Truth, as created and processed by the human mind, cannot by its nature be complex. All theories and knowledge that have some useful value are shockingly simple in their principles - regardless of whether we use special and sophisticated techniques to study them. I believe that it is dangerous for our societies to be alienated from scientific and technical knowledge. We need to give them the tools to at least judge their importance and the implications of implementing them.
I wanted to progressively build a vision of the world where I always distinguish what I can talk about with some degree of certainty from what I don’t know. Our goal must be to push the boundaries of knowledge as far as possible, but at the same time being aware of our inherent limitations and weaknesses.
The crisis we have been experiencing for decades raises the urgent need for a human philosophy to explain in a simple and understandable way, without dogmas, the practical necessity of values and ethics for individual happiness and for social peace and progress. That will help us understand the meaning and the limits of knowledge, enrich our self-knowledge and penetrate into its dual character, the bipolar game of the intellect: conscious and subconscious, logical and intuitive, physical and metaphysical.
It was my desire and responsibility to write about the importance of knowledge as an intangible entity, separate from physical entities, and the need to understand the processes of its development and application. I wanted to show how new concepts and models from Informatics help us to deepen the function of individual and collective consciousness and how the various structures that make up our societies define, above all, information systems, the proper functioning of which depends on the smooth and timely exchange of reliable knowledge.
I hope the book is the beginning of the readers’ introduction to the concept of knowledge along with its multiple forms and uses. I want it to give the readers the tools to see the world from the epistemological point of view; a guide leading them to do the right thing as individuals and as citizens.
Joseph Sifakis was born in Heraklion, Crete, in 1946 and lives in Grenoble, France. He is an internationally acclaimed computer scientist, famous for his pioneering work in the field of information systems design and verification. For his contribution to the theory and application of verification methods, he was awarded the Turing Award of 2007, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in Informatics. Today, his interests are focused on the study of construction methods of integrated systems of high security and fidelity. Joseph Sifakis is a member of the French Academy of Sciences, the French Academy of Technologies, the European Academy and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2009, France gave him the title of Grand Officier de l'Ordre du Mérite, and the title of Commander of the Legion of Honor (Commandant de la Légion d'Honneur) in 2011. In 2009 he received the Award of the Hellenic Parliament Foundation for Parliamentarism and Democracy. In 2013 he was awarded the Order of the Phoenix and in 2012 the Leonardo Da Vinci Medal. Joseph Sifakis served as President of the National Council for Research and Technology during the period: February 2014 - April 2016.