Macron left be­hind in race for AI crown

Just south of Paris, France’s ver­sion of a ma­jor tech hub is tak­ing shape, writes Harry de Quet­teville

The Sunday Telegraph - Money & Business - - Front Page - By Harry de Quet­teville in Paris and Lon­don

FRENCH pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron’s grand plan to project Paris as Europe’s lead­ing force in ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence has been dealt a se­vere blow af­ter a leaked re­port revealed just how far France has fallen be­hind the UK in the crit­i­cal tech­nol­ogy.

The re­port, which comes ahead of Lon­don Tech Week, sug­gests that – as home to al­most 750 com­pa­nies spe­cial­is­ing in ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence – Lon­don’s AI ecosys­tem is twice as big as Paris and Ber­lin com­bined.

Not only that but it is grow­ing by 42pc each year, com­pared to the global av­er­age of 24pc.

Lon­don also re­mains by far the first choice for in­vestors look­ing to buy into Euro­pean start-ups spe­cial­is­ing in AI.

In­vest­ment in Lon­don ex­ceeded £200m in 2017, a rise of 50pc on 2016, the re­port by Cog­ni­tionx noted. The fig­ures come just a fort­night af­ter Mr Macron gave the key­note speech at Paris’s Vi­vat­ech con­fer­ence, promis­ing to trans­form France into an AI leader.

That speech built on an am­bi­tious plan Mr Macron un­veiled in March to be­come a pi­o­neer of “eth­i­cal” AI.

His plan, founded on a re­port by the math­e­ma­ti­cian-turned-mp Cedric Villani, is in the tra­di­tional mould of France’s state-led grands pro­jets.

Tens of mil­lions of tourists pour into Paris ev­ery year, mak­ing it the globe’s most vis­ited city – a gen­uine world leader. Few vis­i­tors, how­ever, will ever have strayed to Sa­clay, 15 miles and a 45-minute drive south west be­yond its pe­riph­erique ring road. But it’s worth a trip.

For un­der way there is a build­ing project to make Baron Hauss­mann blush. Across hun­dreds of acres, dozens upon dozens of cranes pep­per the sky­line, cre­at­ing from scratch a vast sci­en­tific re­search site. When it is fin­ished, it will be home to 85,000 peo­ple across a host of new uni­ver­si­ties, lab­o­ra­to­ries and R&D cen­tres. A mon­u­men­tal state idea made flesh, it is cur­rently the big­gest ur­ban build­ing project in Europe.

“Amer­ica has Sil­i­con Val­ley, an ex­tra­or­di­nary ecosys­tem of pri­vate en­ter­prise,” says Ni­co­las Colin, a for­mer French civil ser­vant and now founder of a tech­nol­ogy in­vest­ment firm. “The way we in France try to repli­cate Sil­i­con Val­ley is by build­ing Sa­clay.”

The con­trast of the An­glo-saxon and French styles could hardly be starker. In Lon­don and Cal­i­for­nia, the tech­nol­ogy rev­o­lu­tion of the last decade has been led by en­trepreneurs – some of whom have gone on to gen­er­ate vast com­pa­nies, and per­sonal wealth. But France has been left be­hind. In Em­manuel Macron it now has a pres­i­dent who is de­ter­mined to un­leash the full force of the state to catch up.

Above all, Macron wants his coun­try to be­come a leader in the field of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence (AI), which is shap­ing up to be the most rev­o­lu­tion­ary tech­nol­ogy of the 21st cen­tury.

“I try to avoid say­ing that it’s a ‘race’, but it’s clear that AI is a key tech­nol­ogy,” says Dr Adrian Weller, pro­gramme di­rec­tor for AI at the Alan Tur­ing In­sti­tute in Lon­don.

“Ev­ery­thing that hu­man­ity has ac­com­plished is be­cause of our in­tel­li­gence. So if we can build ma­chines that are also in­tel­li­gent they can do all sorts of things, which will be cru­cial. In health, trans­port, de­fence, we are start­ing to see that hap­pen­ing in im­por­tant ways.”

The coun­try most ob­vi­ously in Macron’s sights is Bri­tain. AI in­dus­tries in China and Amer­ica can both draw on dol­lars and data far out­strip­ping ev­ery­where else. But be­hind them Lon­don has carved out a huge niche for it­self, and is home to per­haps the world’s most fa­mous AI and ma­chine learn­ing com­pany in Deep­mind, around which tal­ent and ven­ture cap­i­tal in­vest­ment has poured in. “In many re­spects we have made Lon­don the lead­ing city in the world for AI re­search,” says Mustafa Su­ley­man, one of Deep­mind’s founders, look­ing from the win­dow of his sixth-floor of­fice near King’s Cross. “There re­ally is no other big­ger city.”

If pres­i­dent Macron truly thinks his coun­try can be­come the “Euro­pean leader” in AI, Bri­tain will have to be top­pled. That means a cross-chan­nel bat­tle royale for cash, for in­no­va­tive com­pa­nies, and above all for the tal­ent to build them.

The man to whom Macron has en­trusted the task of lead­ing this bat­tle isCé­dric Villa ni, a math­e­ma­ti­cian t urn ed-mp whose spindly limbs echo the legs on the large spi­der brooch he ha­bit­u­ally wears in his lapel. On the day we meet in Sa­clay the im­mense silk knot he wears at his col­lar is sky-blue.

“It’s clear that the com­pe­ti­tion is ex­tremely in­tense, and you can see that in the sums that the var­i­ous com­peti­tors are in­vest­ing to get an ad­van­tage,” he says. “Win­ner takes all is a for­mula that you hear a lot in in­no­va­tion be­cause all you need is a small ad­van­tage to dom­i­nate ev­ery­one else. But AI is re­ally that … it will pro­vide the crit­i­cal edge.”

Fail­ure to es­tab­lish that edge for France would, says Villani, lead to “cy­ber-colo­nial­ism” – but with the his­toric norms re­versed, and France sub­ju­gated from abroad. “If we French don’t watch out we will be­come de­pen­dent. We are look­ing for a way to es­cape this dom­i­na­tion and to find a way to thrive in­de­pen­dently.”

China’s brusque at­ti­tude to per­sonal pri­vacy and data pro­tec­tion, for ex­am­ple, is one for­eign im­port Villani and Macron hope to avoid, talk­ing end­lessly [and of­ten in English] of “eth­i­cal” or “mean­ing­ful” AI. But what re­ally ter­ri­fies the French sen­si­bil­ity is what Villani calls “les mon­stres gi­gan­tesques”. He’s talk­ing about “les GAFA”: Google, Ap­ple, Face­book and Ama­zon.

“You have to re­alise that French cor­po­ratism means en­cour­ag­ing in­cum­bents and rent-seek­ers, and that dou­bles down as anti-amer­i­can­ism,” says Colin, ex­plain­ing this ex­tra­or­di­nary an­tipa­thy. “When France’s in­cum­bents are bat­tling gi­ant Amer­i­can com­pa­nies it is easy for the gov­ern­ment to de­fend them, to de­fend taxi driv­ers against the evil Uber, say, or small fam­ily ho­tels against the mighty Airbnb.”

The prob­lem with that, though, is that it is not just Uber that is try­ing to dis­rupt the notoriously pro­tec­tion­ist French taxi busi­ness. French start-ups are too. But like Uber they find a gov­ern­ment that al­ways sides with the sta­tus quo. In this way, Colin says, the French gov­ern­ment is stran­gling its own en­tre­pre­neur­ial ba­bies. And he should know. He served in the French fi­nance min­istry along­side Macron and de­scribes him­self as “cut from the same cloth”.

“I know Macron well,” Colin con­fides. “He has two sides. The bright side that loves en­trepreneurs cre­at­ing busi­ness from the bot­tom up. Speak­ing English. But he also has the dark, tech­no­cratic side. Like all tech­nocrats, he thinks ev­ery prob­lem can be solved from the top down. Since the elec­tion he’s been cut off from all the peo­ple who at­tracted him to the bright side. Now he’s sur­rounded by the dark side. It’s very dan­ger­ous.”

In the past the mono­lithic tech­no­cratic at­ti­tude has proved par­tic­u­larly irk­some to cre­at­ing a thriv­ing tech­nol­ogy scene. For there is no doubt that France pro­duces bril­liant minds, and not just Villani. Talk to any­one in Paris about AI and they men­tion Yann Le­cun, a world-lead­ing re­searcher in deep neu­ral net­works, and Jerome Pe­senti. The trou­ble is that, like a great deal of French tal­ent, they are no longer in France. Pe­senti even co-au­thored a land­mark re­port on AI last year. Sadly for France it is called Grow­ing the Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence In­dus­try in

the UK. And both now work on AI for Face­book.

“France needs to in­crease the sup­ply of brains but to do that we need to cre­ate a busi­ness en­vi­ron­ment that al­lows peo­ple to make not just mil­lions of eu­ros, but bil­lions of eu­ros,” says Eric Chaney from the In­sti­tut Mon­taigne think tank. “Macron promised that be­fore he was elected. But now, on the Right wing or the Left, it’s dirty to make money. That’s why I doubt France can be­come a big tech hub.”

Even at ba­sic re­search level there are money prob­lems. Nozha Bou­je­maa is di­rec­tor of re­search at In­ria, the French In­sti­tute for Re­search in Com­puter Sci­ence and Au­to­ma­tion, which Macron says will “co-or­di­nate” his AI project.

“We just can’t com­pete,” she says. “When we try to hire re­searchers we re­ally face the salary is­sue. It’s re­ally dif­fi­cult to keep them. They’re state em­ploy­ees, so maybe the most se­nior peo­ple at the end of their ca­reers get €80,000 [£70,000]. Abroad, in­sti­tutes start at $100,000 [£75,000]. And in the pri­vate sec­tor they get four, seven, 10 times as much. We have plenty of re­searchers from In­ria who go to Google.”

In­deed, she says, the In­ria re­search group on ma­chine learn­ing op­ti­mi­sa­tion – a key el­e­ment of im­prov­ing AI – has been closely stud­ied by the Sil­i­con Val­ley gi­ant, which then cherry-picks the tal­ent. Villani has sug­gested hugely rais­ing re­searcher salaries to counter that. But, says Bou­je­maa, do­ing so would up­set the civil ser­vice pay grade “so it will not hap­pen. It’s re­ally an is­sue. Re­searchers in the pub­lic sec­tor in France need to have a vo­ca­tion, frankly – they’re not do­ing it for the money.”

Ma­chine learn­ing op­ti­mi­sa­tion is not the only area where France has ac­knowl­edged ex­per­tise. Ai-driven com­puter vi­sion, es­sen­tial for ap­pli­ca­tions as wide­spread as med­i­cal imag­ing and au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles, is an­other strong point. But again tal­ent – and the com­pa­nies they build – are snapped up in­stead of build­ing a French hub. “I don’t see the am­bi­tion in France to cre­ate multi­bil­lion-dol­lar com­pa­nies,” says Bou­je­maa. “I know peo­ple com­ing out of our re­search groups found­ing start-ups. But from the very be­gin­ning their KPI is to sell, usu­ally to Amer­ica.”

Which might ex­plain why Macron’s push for tech supremacy is not, ac­tu­ally, ex­clu­sively French. Scratch the sur­face and there is an al­most in­stinc­tive de­sire to team up with Ger­many to ward off the might from abroad, to cre­ate what Bou­je­maa calls “an Air­bus for AI”.

Such col­lab­o­ra­tion is un­der way not just at state level, but among big pri­vate com­pa­nies like the French tele­com gi­ant, Or­ange. “AI is a world­wide bat­tle, and pre­cisely be­cause it is we’ve teamed up with Deutsche Telekom,” says Luc Bre­tones, se­nior vice-pres­i­dent of Or­ange. “We’ve split our in­vest­ment with them. The Franco-ger­man pair is de­ci­sive when it comes to build­ing in­no­va­tion with scale and speed. It is com­pletely nat­u­ral to team up.”

It is, many in France say, an em­i­nently “Euro­pean” way of do­ing things. That is a Europe that does not in­clude Bri­tain, too tainted by its base cap­i­tal­ist urges. Yet while air­craft – de­signed by Air­bus or Boe­ing – are the fruits of huge col­lab­o­ra­tive, in­dus­trial in­vest­ment, the AI race is still be­ing driven by a few rare, pre­cious minds and their je ne sais quoi. Iron­i­cally, it is the UK, not France, that is prov­ing more adept at fos­ter­ing it.

“The French are very ex­cited about AI,” says Weller, sit­ting in his of­fice yards away from an Enigma ma­chine on loan from GCHQ. “But we’ve been a leader in this space go­ing back to Tur­ing. He wrote some of the key foun­da­tional pa­pers that have been the bedrock of com­puter sci­ence and AI. We’ve got this cul­ture in the UK of be­ing a bit dif­fer­ent and mav­er­ick. There’s a built-in crazi­ness to it, which I think is great.”

Back in Sa­clay, no doubt, the or­der is com­ing down from on high to mint more mav­er­icks. It won’t be easy.

‘I don’t see the am­bi­tion in France to cre­ate multi­bil­lion­dol­lar com­pa­nies’

‘Macron has two sides. The bright side that loves en­trepreneurs. But he also has the dark, tech­no­cratic side’

Pres­i­dent Macron at the Vi­vat­ech gad­get show in Paris in May. Macron wants France to be a world leader in AI, but faces many ob­sta­cles to mak­ing that hap­pen

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