Michel Beaudouin-Lafon is a renowned academic who has won awards for his work on humancomputer interaction and is a committed member of the prestigious ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) – the largest international learned society dedicated to computer science. He is interested in the metaverse and urges measuring its impacts, which, far from being virtual, he considers will be very real. For La Lettre du DPO, Professor BeaudouinLafon looks back in detail on his committed career and provides us with his vision of the future of this evolution of the web and its impact on society, which he calls on not to be left outside the law.
What is your background, and what led you to take an interest in digital technology and data?
“After attending a school of engineering in computer science, I embarked on a thesis at the Université Paris-Sud (now Paris-Saclay) where I still teach. During this thesis, I discovered the fundamental aspects of human-computer interaction (“HCI”), which I made my field of research for the rest of my career, and which triggered my interest in the design and development of digital tools, taking into account their societal and ethical impacts. HCI is a discipline that is the interface between technology and humans. What interests me is seeking to design systems that are best adapted to the needs of users and above all to human capabilities, and not only driven by what the machine can do. To achieve this, the role of data is important, as it enables designers of digital tools to try to better understand the habits, and perhaps also the needs, of users. This is the reason for my interest in data.”
What are your current responsibilities and projects in this regard?
“First of all, I shall start with my responsibilities. At the national level, I was Chair of the Department of Science and Technology of Information and Communication (STIC) at the Université Paris-Saclay and, since March 2022, I am deputy director of the LISN (Interdisciplinary Laboratory of Digital Sciences, common to Paris-Saclay, the CNRS, CentraleSupélec and Inria). I am also head of the ‘Continuum’ project, a national network of 30 large interactive visualisation platforms, funded by the PIA (Plan d’Investissement d’Avenir). This project aims to respond to the problem posed by increasingly powerful machines that collect and generate such large volumes of data that it becomes very difficult to visualise them: by working on what I call a ‘digital macroscope’, which is a tool that enables us to ‘see’ this data, we are creating solutions that make it possible to understand this data and thus make it usable. At the international level, I am involved in the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery), the largest international learned society dedicated to computer science, where I serve as ViceChair of the Technology Policy Council, informing decisionmakers and policyleaders about the challenges and dangers of digital technologies. In this context, I took a keen interest in the GDPR, and am currently interested in the future economic, societal and political impacts of the metaverse. Secondly, to tell you about my projects, I shall mention two that are related to the metaverse: I was awarded funding from the European Research Council (ERC) for a research project related to the future of our digital user interfaces, and I co-direct a national exploratory project called eNSEMBLE on the future of digital collaboration. The concepts I develop in these projects can perfectly well apply to the metaverse. For example, while in the physical world we know how to easily use an object in an unexpected way (for a use other than that intended by its designer), this is not the case in the digital world. We are therefore seeking to broaden the possibilities of digital tools, which implies more interoperability and in turn requires improved access to data, hopefully breaking down the ‘walled gardens’ in which digital companies confine us.”.
What is your vision of the future of digital technology, and more specifically of the metaverse?
“In my opinion, there are three main reasons for the metaverse craze. Firstly, the digital giants (in particular Facebook, renamed ‘Meta’ for the occasion) are seeking a vector of growth and believe they have found it by making the use of digital technology more immersive, and are communicating at great expense to promote their investments in this area. Secondly, these same companies want to create a new market by multiplying the amount of data collected, which will then be monetised. Lastly, the metaverse is an easy, and therefore tempting, means of existence for all those who prefer to hide behind an avatar rather than face reality; if this technical shield can be a precious tool in certain therapies, and enable some people (disabled people, for example) to free themselves from the critical gaze of others, it can also serve as a mask for others to savagely indulge their worst impulses (sexual or verbal assault, etc.) via their avatar, not to mention the scams linked in particular to NFTs. I consider that it is imperative to apply the same rules in the metaverse as in the physical world because, undeniably, the metaverse will have real impacts on people’s lives.“