Industry welcomes Macron’s $1.85bn AI initiative as latest in new tech arms race
French president Emmanuel Macron’s commitment to invest €1.5bn ($1.85bn) in new education and business initiatives around artificial intelligence (AI) was applauded by the telecoms industry, but only as the latest promise in an intensifying political arms race. Macron said last week France would invest heavily in new research and start-ups to make France a technology center for AI.
“We have to be in a position to build, in France and in Europe, an artificial intelligence ecosystem,” he said.
Detail was scant, but the message was about grass-roots stimulation of the French economy. The sum covers €100 million ($122.8m) “in the coming months” to help launch start-up companies, with a view to attract a further €500 million ($613.8m) from private firms. Macron wants twice as many people studying AI in France. The French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation (INRIA) will create a national AI research program with five industrial partners.
“I think artificial intelligence will disrupt all the different business models and it’s the next disruption to come. So I want to be part of it; otherwise I will just be subjected to this disruption without creating jobs in this country,” Macron told Wired, in an interview after the AI for Humanity conference in Paris last week.
“That’s where we are. And there is a huge acceleration and as always the winner takes all in this field. So that’s why my first objective in terms of education, training, research, and the creation of start-ups is to streamline a lot of things, to have the adaptable systems, the adapted financing, the adapted regulations, in order to build champions here and to attract the existing champions.”
Orange, France’s leading telecoms firm, welcomed the initiative, and took the smart opportunity to announce its own investment in AI, in the form of training for 500 and jobs for 200. It was joined in committing funds for France-based AI by Samsung, Fujitsu, IBM, DeepMind and Microsoft.
Industry commentators reckoned Macron had got his messaging about right, although AI has become something of a political arms race, they noted, as well as catch-all marketing term. “Macron showed a very sensible attitude to let his country adapt to key technology trends, but France is not the first country to promise such investment and it won’t be the last,” commented Luca de Ambroggi, senior research director at IHS Markit.
“The US and China have already clearly committed to AI development and they are likely at the edge. Europe might be a bit late, but it has already made commitments, and we expect further clarification in the short term, in the next couple of weeks
Robert Curran, chief marketing officer at UK-based AI specialist Aria Networks, agreed Macron’s vision is hardly original, even if it is well founded. Although Macron calls out the US and China, actually, the UK is widely regarded as a technology leader in AI. Hence interest from Chinese investors in the UK,” he said, making reference to both the rate of foreign investment in the UK’s AI scene, from the US and China notably, and the UK government’s November budget promising £500 million ($702.7m) in local tech investment, with a good sum for AI development.
Curran also warned telecoms providers – including the likes of Orange, which followed a number of tech luminaries to promise AI funds for France following the president’s speech – that AI required deep cultural change to be successful.
“From a telecoms perspective, a huge focus in the industry is on using AI as part of strategies for greater automation. That will bring inevitable and necessary challenges to the conventional ways of doing things. For the economy to benefit, it won’t be enough that the AI technology works. It will also be necessary to plan for how it will be introduced. That will be easier in young industries, but will be much more of a challenge for those with decades of established practice as is common in telecoms,” he said.
“As it stands, European telcos are a long way off leveraging the power of AI for greater business and operating efficiency. France certainly has an opportunity to showcase the transformative power of AI in the telecoms sector, whether it is the technology that is invented there, or the expertise for introducing it and managing the evolution.”
Greg Kinsey, vice president at Hitachi Vantara, also noted the extant cultural challenge for industries of all stripes looking to enact digital change. “We are seeing a very serious commitment and effort by industrial companies in France, and across Europe, to execute digital transformation. While the technology is an important aspect, the hardest part of digital transformation is evolving skills, organization, and culture,” he said.
Macron stated in his speech that France will be open with its data, but more careful of its privacy at the same time. “We will open our data in France. But the day you start dealing with privacy issues, the day you open this data and unveil personal information, you open a Pandora’s Box,” he told Wired.
“Data can be used to better treat people, it can be used to monitor patients, but it can also be sold to an insurer that will have intelligence on you and your medical risks, and could get a lot of money out of this information. The day we start to make such business out of this data is when a huge opportunity becomes a huge risk. It could totally dismantle our national cohesion and the way we live together. This leads me to the conclusion that this huge technological revolution is in fact a political revolution.”
De Ambroggi at IHS Markit commented: “France, and the EU countries in general, have a different attitude in handling the privacy and security of their citizens compared to other parts of the world. Macron’s statement is a confirmation of the importance of clear and serious regulations in this area, while still giving citizens the opportunity to profit off the technology in the effort to create new opportunities and businesses.”
He also reflected on Macron’s winner-takes-all comment. “It’s really the loser-takes-all,” said de Ambroggi. “The market and industry potential is immense, and it will allow more winners to benefit from it. Nonetheless, the players cannot wait, and need to move fast, in much the same way the technologies themselves do.”