France leads a new revolution

The take-away

  • The French government will invest €1.5 billion to boost AI projects. The country hopes to become an important player in the AI revolution.
  • Google has funded a chair for AI at École Polytechnique. The goal: to tighten the relationship between industry and universities.

France is one of the most prolific European nations when it comes to generating AI talent, churning out top data scientists and machine learning experts from its internationally renowned mathematics and engineering schools. “France’s strength lies in a mathematical tradition that has been carried over to computer science,” explains Marc Schoenauer of the French National Institute for Computer Science and Applied Mathematics (INRIA).

AI experts cultivated by the French educational system include Yann LeCun, founder of Facebook’s AI Research lab; Luc Julia, co-creator of Apple’s Siri; and Nicolas Koumchatzky, lead of Twitter Cortex.

But with no large ecosystem in which to flourish, these AI entrepreneurs are more often than not drawn to the bright lights of Silicon Valley. Facing a brain drain, France and more generally Europe risk falling even further behind the US and China as research hotspots are bled dry and start-ups are swallowed by tech superpowers hungrily pursuing top talent.

Working for Fields Medal winner and Member of Parliament Cédric Villani, Schoenauer recently helped produce a report on artificial intelligence for the French government that aims to change this trend. Announced by President Emmanuel Macron on March 29th, the initiative is an attempt to make France an important player in the AI revolution.

Unlike many reports that gather dust, this one’s recommendations are already being applied. Samsung, Fujitsu, DeepMind, Microsoft and IBM have all announced plans to open offices in France that focus on AI research. IBM will create 1,800 new jobs in cybersecurity, data science, AI and machine learning. This injection of foreign investment will at the very least retain talent in the country – albeit within foreign companies – but the French government is also pledging to invest €1.5 billion in a host of homegrown projects, from public research to start-ups.

The Google chair

Far from simply throwing money at AI, the initiative tackles key weaknesses in the French system, aiming to build an environment conducive to innovation. “Macron announced that he would tighten the relationship between universities and industry,” explains Marie-Paule Cani of École Polytechnique (also known as l’X). She believes that allowing academics to share their time between universities and private companies – or indeed building their own start-ups – will free them to hone the next generation while contributing to French innovation.

In the spirit of the AI initiative, and announced on the same day, Cani was elected to the first Artificial Intelligence and Visual Computing Chair at l’X. Funded by Google France, the role will support the training of a new generation of talent. “The first goal is to provide grants for students aiming for the new graduate degree in Artificial Intelligence and Advanced Visual Computing, encouraging both excellence and diversity,” says Cani. “This fund will also enable us to invite major stakeholders in AI research worldwide, so that they can contribute to courses or seminars in the graduate degree and launch research collaborations with us.”

This programme and Macron’s ambitious AI initiative show France’s determination to retain expertise and new AI technologies. If other European nations with a similarly strong AI skills base follow France’s lead, Cani is optimistic that France and Europe will be able to compete with the US and China on the global stage. “I believe that Europe can play a key role by making public and sharing anonymised data,” she says. “And by working together on ethics and policies.” A first step was made in this direction in April, when 25 EU-countries signed a declaration of cooperation on AI.

Schoenauer is similarly upbeat: “Talking about a European Google is totally unrealistic,” he says. “But there are many AI niches that offer opportunities for Europe, like health, mobility and ecology.”