Michael Bletsas has many titles and many parchments. But the most important thing is that he is fully aware of what man is and what technology is. He has common sense, empathy and he is always willing to listen. The clarity of his answers reveal the clarity of spirit as well as the ability of the man.
By Mia Kollia
Translated by Alexandros Theodoropoulos
He is a Researcher and Director of Computing at the Media Lab of MIT where he has been working since 1996. He was one of the founding members of the "One Laptop Per Child" (OLPC) effort where he had a crucial contribution to the design and implementation of the pioneering laptop "XO", as well as its internet connectivity.
Among other things, he was a co-founder of two high-tech companies and he has done a variety of consulting activities in the public and private sectors. He has implemented broadband access networks in state-of-the-art technologies including one of the first ADSL test platforms and various wireless technologies. He has given many keynote speeches at international conferences and has displayed extensive public benefit activity.
He is a graduate of the Department of Electrical Engineering of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and holds an MSc in Computer Engineering from Boston University.
- What do you think was your most important qualification for the path you chose and what was the defining moment in choosing this career? Intelligence or persistence? Luck and fate or just effort by the book? Risk maybe?
A combination of passion for the subject, curiosity, spiritual restlessness, flexibility, studying, ignorance of risk and of course, luck. And what is certain is that I have done absolutely nothing "by the book".
- What is artificial intelligence today and how do you think it will eventually be implemented?
Today artificial intelligence mainly means machine learning which is just one of the many different forms of artificial intelligence, something that "trains" the machine with many examples instead of explicit "instructions". It is already widely applied in our daily lives, for example in risk assessment, in the choices made by all kinds of online platforms regarding what they will show us, in the automatic translation, in the text correction we type, in the driver aids that all contemporary cars have and in electronic games. My personal view is that it can bring great benefits to the health sector in which its implementation is at an early stage today.
- Is there an ethics of technology? Does technology work for or against the development of broader human knowledge, general culture, soft skills and other social skills?
Tools have no ethics. Their use should be guided by it. Also, the more complex and powerful a tool is, the greater the requirements are for its functional use. So the debate should always focus on maximising the benefits and minimising the inevitable negative effects as well as the necessary skills required.
- How far apart, practically and realistically speaking, have young people distanced themselves from each other due to the development of social networks? Do you think that one day we will be able to control the immediate negative effects on our lives - from the simplest to the deaths? And how many personas can a social media freak withstand?
Today's social media has as its main goal the maximisation of our engagement with them. This is mathematically impossible to lead to an overall positive accounting result. And because it is perfectly normal for the ephemeral pleasure they offer us to overshadow their negative effects, we need perseverance on the one hand in highlighting them, on the other hand in achieving the right "dosage". Sugar, alcohol, tobacco, drugs have taught us how to deal with addictive situations.
- Control of our lives by the "beasts". How much truth or lie did the social dilemma hide?
The giants do not control our lives; this is not their business model. But by creating these very detailed profiles for each of us, they provide anyone who wants to control anybody with that ability. And unfortunately these are not the only providers of consumer products and services. If one leaves aside any exaggerations in dramatisation, the social dilemma was a very useful "alarm clock".
- What do you think will be the most important effects of the coronavirus, particularly in the long run? Practically there will be many, I can imagine. But mentally, would you say that it taught us something, or in a little while it will be as if not a day has passed?
Connectivity, tele-anything, business travel, real estate, are areas in which we have seen major reorganisation that will remain to a large extent. Violent reversal of the trend for smaller and smaller states in the West. Awareness of how much we rely in our daily lives on people we do not reward accordingly. In Greece we will inherit the great improvement of the citizen interface with the state through the actions of the ministry of digital governance. And to each of us personally, a re-prioritisation of our daily priorities.
America: the one you love and the one you don’t love…
The capacity and versatility of society, trust in institutions, the acceptance of failure as useful and inevitable on the road to success, MIT (and such institutions). I cannot reconcile with gun ownership, the death penalty, racism and Trumpism in general.
- What is missing from Greece and what do you miss from Greece?
Greece lacks institutional maturity and confidence. We are a society of low trust. I miss my friends, my family and the Greek philosophy of life.
- How is the day of such a busy and hard-working scientist? How do you stay active?
I am very lucky because I am in a very dynamic environment in which very interesting things are constantly happening. So, observation is enough to learn something new every day. I spend my day designing and implementing new systems for the lab, solving problems that arise in existing systems, reading, cooking and fixing stuff. I don’t write as much as I should, a legacy of hatred in calligraphy of the 1st grade.
- What do you consider the greatest achievements of man to date and what are the greatest crimes?
The greatest human achievement is the progress of civilization in the last century which dramatically increased life expectancy and standard of living but also made humanity recognise practices of the past as criminal. Looking back on the recent past and our wider region, it is obvious that the Holocaust stands out for its hatred. The next stage is the reevaluation of humanity's current bad relationship with the rest of the planet and the recognition of the responsibility of its leadership.
- Who has been your inspiration and companion?
I consider myself very lucky because in all the stages of my life I’ve had people around me from whom I drew inspiration. Parents, teachers, friends, associates. Looking back on my recent experiences, however, I was very impressed by Katalin Kariko's story, whose persistence and dedication gave us the technology on which the Covid vaccine was based, which allows me today to return to a more social life.