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"A human-centred approach to digital technologies"

To coincide with European Sustainable Development Week, Thales is publishing its new Digital Ethics Charter, which sets out the Group’s 10 commitments for digital responsibility. Raphaël de Cormis, VP, Innovation and Digital Transformation and CEO of the Thales Digital Factory, discusses the background and vision behind Thales’s approach to digital technology.

The digital revolution is creating a wealth of opportunities in so many sectors and industries. But it’s also creating its fair share of concerns, real and imagined. Why it is important to take a more ethical and responsible approach to digital technology?

The digital revolution is radically transforming the way we do business and go about our daily lives. But this shift has also piqued our imaginations: as a society, we’ve constructed this science-fiction future in which these new virtual spaces fascinate and terrify us in equal measure. In part, this attitude stems from the fact that digital technology is largely associated with the Silicon Valley culture of libertarianism and transformation, and the idea that the digital revolution should bring about rapid and momentous change. With the current narrative casting the so-called tech giants as untameable monsters devouring everything in their path, it’s easy to understand why many people see this new world as more of a jungle than a properly regulated space where everyone can flourish and thrive. Social media and government efforts to regulate their content are adding fuel to the controversy. At Thales, we take a different view: we see the digital sphere as a space that lends itself to rationality grounded in science and evidence, and that’s consistent with the European values handed down from the Age of Enlightenment. For this reason, we believe a more “responsible” approach is not only desirable but critical. Digital technologies should be conceived not as an instrument of subjugation, but rather as a way to enrich our society and raise our standard of living according to the rules we set.

Digital ethics isn’t a new subject for Thales. Why has the Group chosen 2022 as the year to publish a new charter? 

We started thinking about digital ethics and governance as soon as we began using these technologies in our projects. Over time, and with the benefit of experience, we’ve developed a huge number of processes and thought long and hard about how to put new technologies to good use. To take one example, we have long recognized their potential to drive down size, weight and power consumption (SWaP), and we’ve made consistent progress on this front ever since. Practices like these have emerged across the Group, without necessarily following a single policy or set of guidelines. So our first reason for developing a charter was to pull all these initiatives together as a matter of urgency and to provide a framework that charts the way forward, sets expectations and lets us measure progress against recognised metrics.

The second major reason is that the charter is a public statement of Thales’s commitment to using digital technology in a responsible, ethical and environmentally friendly way. The partners and stakeholders that make up the Group's ecosystem are showing a growing interest in CSR-related issues, and some customers are even prizing ESG criteria over technical performance! If we are to fulfil our purpose of “building a future we can all trust”, we have no option but to commit unequivocally to digital responsibility.

How can digital technologies help us meet the challenges ahead? 

Digital responsibility is essential if we are to meet two major challenges. The first of these has to do with social stability. Digital technologies are creeping into every aspect of our lives, from how we communicate with one another and manage financial transactions, for example, to how we vote or prove our identity as citizens. The systems behind these processes – both digital and physical – need to be robust, reliable and stable. And that means staying permanently ahead of the curve. Thales is leading from the front on fundamental research in these areas. For instance, our identity management and data protection technologies help protect 80% of banking transactions worldwide. And right now, we’re developing new algorithms that will maintain this degree of protection in the upcoming era of post-quantum cryptography. 

Another example relates to the spectacular progress in artificial intelligence we’ve seen in recent times. At Thales, as we look to harness the power of data to drive human performance, we’re developing "explainable" AI systems and algorithms that eliminate discriminatory bias and seek to create a level playing field for all users. Our biometric solutions, which use facial recognition technologies, are a case in point. 

The second major challenge that calls for digital responsibility is, of course, the environment – an area where Thales is working hard on many fronts. 

With European Sustainable Development Week beginning, can you give us some practical examples of what Thales is doing on the environment? 

Digital technologies present an immense opportunity to shrink the carbon footprint of our business activities. For example, we’ve reduced our power consumption by as much as 88% by moving part of our information systems to the cloud, and we have a policy of working with cloud providers that use energy from renewable sources. In the aerospace industry, which accounts for a significant share of our business, we’ve deployed digital solutions that optimise flight paths and air traffic control, reduce vapour trails [which form behind the engines at high altitude and have a significant climate impact – ed.] and make aircraft cockpits “smart” and more environmentally friendly. 

The other big benefit of digital technologies is that they will allow us to develop eco-designed products and services that are more environmentally responsible throughout their lifecycles. From the earliest design phase, we strive to use less-polluting raw materials, impose traceability requirements all along the supply chain, and use digital twins to simulate the lifecycle of our products and services so we can anticipate their potential impact. Taken together, these measures are helping us to shrink the overall environmental footprint of all our new products. This kind of thinking comes naturally for a company like Thales, which is accustomed to working on long-term projects where repairability and lifecycle management are key priorities. But going forward, we want to do more than just adopt responsible, sustainable practices. We’re looking to embed this approach within all our designs and make eco-design the norm. And we’ll be relying on digital technologies to make that happen.