Our idea is to show that we are all born researchers, capable of learning and rising to challenges, at least collectively, by learning from each other in open collectives. Our educational system therefore differs from the traditional system in three fundamental ways: we provide a free choice of what is to be learned, we disseminate knowledge that is still under construction as opposed to knowledge drawn from the past, and we teach in a context that encourages cooperation rather than competition.
Making pupils compete in obsolete programs selected by upper hierarchical levels is unfortunately still the basis of our educational model. Yet being able to work cooperatively on open questions, voluntarily chosen for the ways in which they resonate with personal challenges and desires, seems much more fruitful to us. The advantage of this method is also that it works for everyone: children, adults, elites, disruptive pupils…
For example, studies have shown that the capacity to think ethically diminishes with the number of years spent in engineering school, that the capacity to think with empathy and compassion diminishes after time spent in a faculty of medicine, and that the capacity to think cooperatively is diminished over the duration of a course in a business school. The shocking thing is that these are the places where our elites are trained.
A school for collective intelligence
We need to come up with new forms of learning, not just for the individual but also for the collective. What is a learning collective? How does it learn? Which collectives learn the best? Can a collective learn from another collective? Can we build a learning city, a learning planet? With the Learning Planet Institute, we are testing tools and methods to answer these questions.
We were therefore the setting for one of the first theses on “fake news,” but also for research on the progress of synthetic biology, and for a number of other subjects that emerge at the intersection of different disciplines, and which students engage with precisely because we give them a degree of freedom which they would not find elsewhere. To provide them with a basic level of subject content, we focus on intelligence, basing our teaching on the three major fields of information: genetic, cultural, and digital information. Biological intelligence is analyzed by evolutionary biologists, neurobiologists, or geneticists, of which I am one. Artificial intelligence is linked to the field of computing, and human intelligence to the sciences of learning and to our individual and collective capacities for instruction. The major question is to understand how these intelligences and types of information co-develop in a world where they are interconnected on different scales in time and space, with a set of contrasting physical, biological, chemical, societal, cultural, and technological dynamics. The important thing is to be able to think both in terms of information and in terms of action, in terms of modelling and in terms of experimentation—to develop a theory and then to test it. From this perspective, our pedagogy has more in common with research than with subject specificity. We teach our students to think differently, to communicate, to criticize, to take risks, to work with people whose culture is different from their own.
Another subject that we always teach is sustainable development. We live on a finite planet, and this is a meta problem, on every level, which is why it is one of the few things that we impose on our students, along with some basics about interdisciplinary methodological approaches and collective intelligence. We teach them to understand the limits of the biosphere and to not limit themselves to reasoning in terms of exponential growth.
A building designed for serendipity
The architect Patrick Mauger designed the current Learning Planet Institute building, with a method of co-construction with the users, which he incorporates into all his projects. This collaborative approach yields more interesting, innovative results, and people are happier in the buildings. This place is located in the heart of Paris, in the Marais district, and includes an ecosystem of housing units, laboratories, and teaching spaces. The central tenet of the original commission was to design a space that reflected the needs of the twenty-first century, and not those of the twentieth century, which is why I campaigned very hard for the architect to forget everything that he had built previously.
To accompany the process, we gave one of our students, Marion Voillot, the mission of being a catalyst of collective intelligence. Over the course of a year, she documented the expectations of the entire Learning Planet Institute community—students, staff, researchers, professors—and transcribed them in a form that was communicable to the architects and designers in order to design the building, but also its furniture and functions. In fifteen years, we have changed campus ten times, each time doubling in size, but this is the first time that we have been in a building that was really designed for us and by us. The space is in our image, unlike the waiting room of the morgue at the Necker Hospital or the cafeteria of the École normale supérieure, which both hosted us in the past. Fundamentally, the building offers a framework of evolutive, productive freedom, where it is possible to cooperate to achieve things which we would be unable to achieve alone. I have done a lot of research on the equivalent of serendipity in biology. Serendipity is structured. There is a degree of randomness, but natural selection can encourage processes which increase certain probabilities and reduce others. We therefore imagined the [Learning Planet Institute] space as an intersection of serendipities, in order to maximize the productive dimension of the encounters that take place there.
Fostering collaborations through Artificial intelligence
We therefore use an artificial intelligence which transforms texts into vectors, which means that depending on what the AI reads—and the volume can be enormous—it is capable of transposing it in space and generating connections.
For example, by reading all the student projects from a given university and comparing them with all the Wikipedia pages and corpuses we provide it with, it is capable of calculating the distance between subjects and of putting these students in contact with various researchers and players with similar preoccupations throughout the world, including from different disciplines. This comparison enables you to identify what you know, but also what you do not, and how you might learn useful things to rise to your specific challenge. This process follows the same platform logic as existing applications such as Uber, Google Maps, Tinder, etc., but in the field of knowledge, where there is still a need for other services to encourage coming together.
To test the reliability and the relevance of this artificial intelligence, we started with the corpus of The Conversation, a platform for sharing scientific knowledge, and in the end, the quality of the recommendations was at least as good as those of the journal’s professional editors, even though the AI had not yet been enriched with their human intelligence.
We know that it can serve the commercial interests of some people or the political interests of some others, but why could it not also enable the development of ethical projects in the service of the common good? Projects that would help us to move forward, grow, and gain in wisdom, as opposed to projects that manipulate us, monitor us, and transform us into frenzied consumers or social network freaks. We are already witnessing a downward spiral among those who control AI, but the situation could get even worse.
Fundamentally, I think that we need new narratives. And more than that, we need to encourage young people to free their imaginations, because a lot of the current narratives terrify them more than they inspire them. Planetary narratives, new utopias: that is what we need. Although we have to take the physical limitations of the planet into account, we must not forget that our imagination, for its part, is unlimited. I believe that it will give rise to a great number of future solutions.