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
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