Artificial intelligence

France to step up artificial intelligence efforts to close gap with US and China

European powers risk falling behind in the global competition for future technologies as Google, Apple, Facebook and China’s AI companies plow ahead. 

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 March, 2018, 8:59am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 March, 2018, 8:59am

(Bloomberg) -- President Emmanuel Macron is rolling out France’s strategy to close an artificial-intelligence gap with the U.S. and China, saying it’ll require Europeans to get more comfortable with sharing data.

After a buildup that includes naming one of the world’s top mathematicians as his point man, Macron is expected to propose higher government funding for research and updated rules on data use in his speech Thursday at a former 13th-century Cistercian college in Paris. He also plans to tout incentives for scientists and companies to move to France.

“With the digital revolution, we must be at the side of French industrial companies in the disruptive dynamic of innovation,” Macron told French business executives this week.

European powers risk falling behind in the global competition for future technologies as Google, Apple, Facebook and China’s AI companies plow ahead. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel also plans to boost research funding to help give the country’s manufacturers an edge.

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Macron’s proposals will draw on a report by Cedric Villani, a mathematician with a penchant for Gothic suits who’s now a French lawmaker. His 242-page report, seen by Bloomberg, suggests an AI focus on the health, environment, transportation and security sectors. Government scientists should get higher pay, it says.

Macron envisions a proactive stance that spurs Europe to attract leading tech companies, according to a French government official who asked not to be identified discussing the speech in advance. France’s government has pledged to provide as much as 300 million euros ($370 million) a year for research and projects, though much more will be needed, the official said.

Villani’s analysis, shared by Macron, is that people, companies and governments must share more data across Europe. The trick is to get people to understand that this doesn’t have to mean compromising on privacy, Villani said in an interview.

“Accessing data -- that’s the number one challenge, the major hurdle,” he said.

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Paris is gaining ground as a European hub for research: Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Facebook Inc. pledged this year to hire staff and invest in labs, while Samsung Electronics Co. is expected to announce Thursday it’s expanding a research center in Paris. 

France is counting in part on its national health and transportation-system databases to make inroads on AI. Yet Germany and France have long bemoaned a dearth of tech venture capital and French R&D spending is below-average, largely because of low private-sector spending.

Macron and Merkel pledged in January to develop joint strategies and projects to meet the AI challenge. In her latest government’s agenda, the three parties making up Merkel’s coalition call for setting up a joint center for promoting artificial intelligence.