Interview Of The Week

Interview Of The Week: Benoit Bergeret, AI Expert

Benoit Bergeret is Executive Director of ESSEC Business School’s Metalab for Data, Technology, and Society. A recognized expert on artificial intelligence, Bergeret is a frequent advisor to government cabinets and private and public investment banks as well as to the French Tech Mission and the OECD. A co-founder and board member of Hub France IA, an industry non-profit organization that seeks to act as the operating system of the AI ecosystem in France and Europe, Bergeret has served as a consultant to the French government on its national AI and metaverse strategies. He has been an external member, for more than five years, of the investment committee of the French Tech Acceleration government fund, which aims to develop the technology startup ecosystem in France and abroad through investment in private incubation and acceleration ventures. After serving as a C-Level executive at Bull, IBM, Lucent Technologies, and Vinci, Bergeret, a computer science engineer specialized in AI by training, became a serial startup entrepreneur in Europe and the United States. He recently spoke to The Innovator about how AI and the metaverse are evolving.

Q: How is ESSEC helping to prepare business and society for the metaverse?

BB: I view my mission as helping France and Europe implement AI in the real world and contribute to a better understanding of the right way to use these technologies. I realized that to thrive in the future these technologies need to be embraced as something business students really need to understand so that when they graduate and join the workforce, they are data and AI ready and able to work in interdisciplinary teams. This explains my decision to join ESSEC as director of the Metalab For Data, Technology and Society. Metalabis not a lab, it is a small group of working staff and professors with deep expertise in AI, business analytics, and digital transformation. Metalab is structured as a center of influence and excellence. We are driving the transformation of ESSEC from three angles. We are equipping the research faculty with data and AI tools so they can expand their research and also  identify areas where the adoption of technology is shifting things in their respective research fields.  The second angle is integrating knowledge about these technologies and their impact and management into the business school curriculum at scale. ESSEC has about 10,000 students at any point in time. AI, which is essential to the functioning of the metaverse or Web3, has been recognized as a General Purpose Technology [technologies – such as the steam engine, and electricity, or the computer – that have the potential to drastically alter societies through their impact on pre-existing economic and social structures] so we need business people to understand it.  This year 800 ESSEC business students will complete a course on machine learning. Next year it will be 3000. We also have recently launched, in partnership with CentraleSupelec, a new B.Sc. in AI, data science and management, which integrates all three in a unique curriculum. The third angle is to leverage our knowledge and expertise by getting involved in various outside organizations to increase the level of awareness and conversation about not just the technology of AI, but also the prerequisites, conditions, impacts and consequences of its adoption by businesses and society at large. For instance, we chair a working group on AI adoption by mid-size companies at AmCham, the American Chamber of Commerce in France. We have partnered with OECD to manage the France piece of a qualitative and quantitative global study about the impact of the adoption of AI on the workforce. We are also contributing to a report on the metaverse for the French government that will hopefully lead to a well thought-out national strategy.

Q: How do you define the metaverse?

BBL To me, today’s metaverses can be defined as simulated digital environments that use virtual reality and possibly blockchain, along with concepts from social media, to create digital experiences that enable rich user interaction sometimes inspired by the real world. I was speaking with a key player in the metaverse recently and when I asked him what, in his view, is the technology that is the most impactful for business and society, notably his response was augmented reality, not the metaverse. The metaverse is one step towards that, but the devices need to be developed first and users educated.  His vision – one that I share – is that down the line what we today call the metaverse will include a whole set of paradigms, sometimes totally immersive and sometimes in augmented reality. 

Q:  Which business sectors will be impacted first by the metaverse?

BB: One of the short-term values to businesses is about teaching and training staff employees. Alstom, which builds trains and transport solutions, is said to train 8000 staff a year using augmented reality.  The creative industries will also benefit in the short term, especially when the technology is coupled with AI models that have been trained to generate images from textual prompts. The combination of these two technologies is stunning and will revolutionize the creative arts. Design agencies will never be the same. Just like the industry moved from paper to computers for graphic design, I believe the whole profession will switch to these tools. While group collaboration in a virtual setting is a good early application for some businesses, providing significant reduction in expenses while increasing comfort compared to video conferencing, the technology is not yet ready to be applied in many sectors. At ESSEC we organized a series of sessions with faculty and management to align our team on the state-of-the-art of the technology. We tested education as well as cooperation use cases. With a headset on your eyes, you can see what professors are writing on a virtual blackboard. You can walk to the blackboard to write down an answer. But how do you take notes? It doesn’t work, yet.

Q: A lot of the hype around the metaverse today focuses on the potential for brands to sell virtual goods and the possibility of then turning the most popular items into physical goods or vice versa. What is your take on that?

BB: There is a lot of hype right now about certain applications. We all see how Meta is pushing e-commerce very hard, but it is super important for companies to understand that this business case in the metaverse isn’t for everyone. If you are a brand and are happy with the notion of selling digital goods, be aware that this is going to happen in a series of augmented reality environments, each calling themselves a metaverse. The interoperability of these environments is far from being a reality. It is going to take a while before this becomes a broad market.

Q: What advice do you have for businesses?

BB: When the metaverse does cross the chasm and there is adoption at scale (thanks to standards, interoperability, and removal of barriers to adoption such as headset discomforts or the absence of an efficient note taking paradigm), it will be impressive, not because it will create new unicorns but because it will create a whole new economy.  For the moment, though, the metaverse is attracting mostly early adopters and it would be a mistake to read that as a sign of mass adoption. The metaverse is not at the point of crossing the chasm,[ a phrase made popular by author Geoffrey A. Moore.] In his book by the same name Moore shows that in the technology adoption life cycle there is a vast chasm between the early adopters and the early majority. While early adopters are willing to take risks for the advantage of being first, the early majority waits until they know that the technology actually offers improvements in productivity.  Businesses should develop an actionable roadmap to match their nature, needs, and time scale. If you are a data-first business you should definitely look at it. If you are not, and maturation for your business is further away, it may not make sense for this to be part of your game plan right now.

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About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.