Mélanie Marcel, founder of SoScience
5 May 2021
What if the primary objective of research and innovation was to serve the general interest?
Mélanie Marcel, you are an engineer specializing in wave physics and neuroscience, today at the head of SoScience. Tell us about your journey.
I was born in France and I had a fairly classic career. I was a pretty good student and quite gifted in both science and letters. When I had to make a choice, I went to science because, since I was little, I have been convinced that this is what makes humanity move forward.
When I was very young, I must have been around 8 years old, I was convinced that I had found an AIDS vaccine by doing little experiments. I was already thinking quite a bit at that age. My grandfather fought fascism and I think this idea of wanting to fight to make the world a better place is very much in me. This family background changed a lot of things in what I have done in my life and in my career, because in the end it was the question of "justice" that came out in everything I did.
You carried out your first research on machine / brain interactions, notably in Japan at NTT: what did it consist of ?
With this idea that science could save lives, I decided to specialize in researching machine-brain interaction. One of the possible applications was, for example, to give back to quadriplegic people the use of their arms and legs with electrodes implanted in the brain. Coupling this with an exoskeleton allows you to regain control and regain real mobility.
I found myself working in Japan at NTT, among the most advanced teams, to study this famous machine-brain interaction. It was passionate. I even found myself inventing microsurgery techniques.
But as a scientist, I was at the same time struck by the fact that I was guided, that I had no say in the outcome. NTT wanted at the time to work on the future of telecommunications, and therefore on the possibility of connecting a cell phone directly to the brain. I had no control over the possible outcomes. So I wanted to take this mastery back in hand and I created SoScience.
Today, SoScience creates favorable conditions for the emergence of innovation and research practices aimed at responding to societal challenges. Can you explain your role and vision to us?
It's about rethinking how we use the results of our research. To restore the power of choice over scientific production and to question knowledge within society. This is the long-term vision: democratic, participatory ...
More concretely and directly, we are setting up open innovation programs, research programs that are co-created with all the actors who are stakeholders: scientists, social entrepreneurs, NGOs, etc. Civil society does not participate enough today in my opinion. How can we regain power in the implementation of the technologies around us? This is what we are working on at SoScience.
Elon Musk is developing Neuralink, a chip that allows you to "connect" your brain. This leaves many to fear an unbridled use of science, without consultation. What do you think?
What's interesting to note is that Musk offers and develops technology because that is his vision. It imposes on the world, with no possibility for us (recipients and users of these technologies) to choose what to do with them. However, I am deeply convinced that progress should not be seen as something inevitable. When I hear people say "if we don't hurry, China will do it" for example, I don't agree with what that entails.
Today the choices are made by entrepreneurs who have somewhat tyrannical positions. This empties democracy of its substance. It is no longer useful to vote for people who no longer have control over these subjects and who are overwhelmed by entrepreneurs who impose their vision of society unilaterally.
We often see progress as something linear. It's true that Elon Musk speeds up progress in a way, but maybe with blinders that make it impossible to see if there isn't something better for society to do by looking a little sideways, borrowing different ways.
What did you take away from your time in Japan?
There is a lot to say! I could do an entire interview on Japan! Most importantly, how different Japan is from anything I have experienced before and since. What I took away was a form of openness and curiosity that I gained. That we should not at all hesitate to go for the difference.
It has clearly changed the way I see the world. You realize that it's enriching to be in a place where you lose your bearings. Japan is what we call a developed country: it's very funny because you find yourself in a country at the same "level" as other developed countries, but nothing is similar. From the airport to the hotel, from living at home to living outside, going out to eat for example, it should be about the same experience. But in fact everything is different. Japan has made choices in its development that make everyday life totally different. Let us take the example of toilets which make tourists laugh so much: same use, and yet everything is totally different: in Japan, toilets heat the seat, make music, automatically clean you ... This clearly underlines how much for the same subjects, and with the same technological "level", you do different things because of your culture and your social choices.
Also, I came to Japan in the year of Fukushima. I experienced the power cuts in Tokyo, having to consume products from this disaster-stricken region in order to support the local economy… The question of technical choices was all the more fascinating as I lived in a place where a disaster major industrial had taken place.
You intervened for Google X. Tell us.
It was quite unique and exceptional to be a guest at Google X because it's often called Google's secret labs. I came to present responsible innovation criteria, I was shown around the premises. I came to speak on my subject of expertise: how to do research and innovation with a high social impact. For Google X, it's always about launching very advanced technology, a total breakthrough, with strong business potential. And they necessarily add the idea of a social and environmental impact, for at least one billion people!
They asked me to talk about the positive impact of being on very advanced technologies. I have insisted a lot on the fact that the R&D processes must be different. In particular by taking into account the fact that we must take the stakeholders and involve them at each stage of innovation.
The problem at Google is that by implementing classic innovation processes, you are faced with the classic issues involved. It's not enough. Intention is not enough. The real way to make an impact is the way you involve other actors.
If you had the chance, what would you do to change the world?
If I had a magic wand, I would rebuild democracy. To make it an industrial or technological democracy. I've said this before, but technology or science are the things that most impact people and our planet. And yet most people have no power over it. We have to empower people at this level.
It's a bit like being in the 1500s and being a thousand miles away from imagining what will happen in 1789. SoScience is a way for me to be a thinker of the 1500s and to try to make happen what will happen in 1789.
"If I had a magic wand, I would rebuild democracy. To make it an industrial or technological democracy."
If you could time travel, what advice would you give to the child that you were?
Absolutely nothing. I wouldn't tell him anything. I am convinced that everything always goes as well as possible, that the only thing that matters are the choices we make at the moment T. We make them for specific reasons, which have meaning for us at that time, there is no point in wanting to change them. At worst, I would tell him “Go play!”.
It's the only thing that matters !