The debate on 5G in France is taking a turn that is so particular and absurd that we need to understand its roots. And denounce the caricatures.
Many people who are opposed to 5G are wondering whether it is really reasonable to roll out so much investment, consume so much energy, and take so many risks, just to be able to watch films more conveniently on the countless platforms that offer them. It is all well and good for the same people to explain that most of the bandwidth is and will be used for entertainment and that it is not essential.
They are right. Or rather, they would be right if that was the real function of 5G.
In reality, the massive improvement in the speed of data collection and processing that 5G allows has other objectives: firstly, it will make it possible to have the means to perform remote surgery with precision and operate autonomous cars, both of which require extremely short reaction time.
The most radical opponents of 5G will still say, however, that these two objectives are not a priority either; that we can, and indeed must, develop localized health systems; and that environmental obligations must be prioritized over autonomous cars. These are arguments that I can hear.
The real benefit conferred by 5G, however, is not quite there. The benefit is in how it is used inside the industrial machine itself. Indeed, when coupled with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT), 5G will make it possible to manage large-scale energy transmission networks as well as possible; reduce massively waste and fraud; monitor banking flows more efficiently, detect fraud and suspicious or criminal activities; enhance control in insurance activities, optimise the routes of trucks, boats and planes, so that they consume as little energy as possible, and reduce massively the risks of breakdowns and accidents involving machines, cars and planes.
In other words, if 5G is oriented toward the industrial sector, and perhaps only towards this sector, 5G is a formidable tool for economic and ecological productivity.
If we do not see it as such, which in France is less than elsewhere, it is because technological evolutions are only evaluated by their impact on consumption and not on production. Because we only want to retain from industry what people consume, not what they produce.
It is no surprise that France is the European country with the highest trade deficit, the one that devotes the least effort to training engineers and to encouraging the few who graduate from our excellent schools to not turn away from their original vocation in favour of finance or politics-related professions.
This is nothing new: it is in France that many industrial innovations started but remained at their infancy stage without any follow-through. From the steam engine to the Internet, countless turning points have been missed in France, because not enough attention had been paid to the industrial use of inventions. Because industry is perceived to be dirty, degrading, unlike services. Because an innovation is only evaluated from the consumer’s point of view.
The consequence of this type of attitude is that, in 5G and in many other areas, we will continue to sink. We will continue to see industry as a source of problems, which it is, without seeing that it too is the only source of solutions: it is through industry, and only through industry, that we will find ways to save energy on a massive scale. And not through its consumption, which can only be anecdotal, whether we like it or not, of century-old means of transportation.
We are in the process of losing our last remaining expertise in nuclear energy. We do not yet have any world-class skills in intermittent energy. We do not have any firm that is truly global leader or lead the European market for artificial intelligence, industrial automation, nanotechnology, biomimicry, to mention just a few of the major sectors of tomorrow.
There is an urgent need to restore the industrial sector to its rightful place. We must understand that we are moving toward hyper-industrial rather than post-industrial societies. We must create a ministry worthy of the name that will be in charge of the industrial sector. We must restore the mission of our engineering schools, which is to train engineers, rather than serve as a recruitment ground for the most speculative services of the world financial system. We must give these engineers the exhilarating mission of finding industrial answers to the problems of climate change, waste recycling, eco-design of machines and objects. And so many other problems.
The solutions to our economic, ecological and social problems lie much more in producing differently, rather than consuming differently. Until we understand this, and give industry its rightful place, we will continue to march backwards into the future.