I attended the AI keynote of French secretary of State for digital Cedric O at the opening of the AI Paris 2019 conference, of which Visionary Marketing is a media partner. Thus, I listened carefully to his presentation, which covered Europe and France, their strengths and weaknesses. In the end, it was also a very revealing moment with regard to the relationship between politics and technology and innovation, with a well-targeted question by the audience: “What is AI to you?”
What does AI mean to a Secretary of State for digital in Europe?
Cédric O was an advisor to French President Macron for 2 years. He has not only worked on digital technology, but also on the involvement of States in innovation; and one thing that impressed him during these two years at the Presidential “Elysee” Palace is the financial side of technology that makes China and the United States two unrivalled Powers in that space.
Cedric O: “With AI, Europe could be wiped off the map“
The risk is high, the minister said, that Europe could “be wiped off the map.”
AI is not the only technology at stake, he said (namely, blockchain must be added to the lot) but it is one of the fundamental technologies of our times.
On can prove that this risk for Europe is real and the numbers add up: “In 2016, US tech giants aka GAFAM have invested 30 to 40 billion euros in AI. Chinese tech giants also followed in their footsteps, whereas Europe only dedicated 4-5 billion euros per annum to this domain.”
AI: A sense of urgency in Europe
Hence, a sense of urgency: “The risk will be measured in terms of job losses and loss of sovereignty” and this is what motivated 2010 Fields medal winner Cedric Villani’s mission, explained the Minister.
He then outlined the case briefly:
- The battle for AI is a battle for human intelligence: that is, it is necessary for Europe to train, retain and attract talents, as in the USA and China. Among the GAFAM and everywhere else, in Korea namely, it is not uncommon to find an AI manager who is French. “One must bring them back home” explained the minister, and that is why France has decided to invest €5 billion of public money, two-thirds of it on research (Grenoble, Paris, Toulouse…) and pay researchers at the right price so that they stay there… The “Pacte” action plan has also been amended to allow researchers to spend 50% of their time in the private sector. “The greatest talents must come back home, the process has already started,” said the Minister. And the results are already there with lab openings by some of the GAFAM, but also Orange and others. There is also NABLA, a startup created by former Facebook alumni who have returned and founded their company in Paris.
- Secondly, a vertical action plan all across the board is necessary: AI depends on the whole ecosystem. 1) More funding first because, as we have seen, it is finance that drives innovation. But not only that: 2) More training is also needed. According to the Minister, this is the topmost limiting factor for French startups. But the issue is less with high-end than vocational training, he added. Because according to Cédric O, the elites are well trained in France, it is in the middle and at the bottom of the scale that the problem lies, he said in substance. Another important point, according to him, is that Europe will not be able to catch up with the GAFAM or BATXs in mass markets, as Europe is lagging behind and cannot catch up. On the other hand, one will be able to recover on niche subjects, where we have better
- The minister mentioned health, critical systems (where 24/7 reliability is required) and energy among them. But first of all, you have to work at the right level, he warned us: “The right level is the European level”, he warned. “In 2017, Europe accounted for only 10% of US and Chinese investment. The gap has not been closed, but today this figure has risen to about 30-35%.”
- A picture tempered by the Secretary of State by the fact that this figure remains far below its competitors and that the Franco-German relationship has not allowed us to gain a competitive advantage for Europe. “What we have been able to do together is disappointing,” he said. Industrial cooperation is far from what it should be, even if on paper it seems interesting.
- The questions of Ethics and AI are at the heart of the concerns of the French State and Cedric O’s in particular. We cannot say that there isn’t an issue ( “all you have to do is read ‘Weapons of Math destruction’ argued the minister); it is, therefore, necessary that “the State takes care of this issue”. But we must also “be wary of not letting go of innovation, otherwise, we will lose ground, because digital is always a matter of usage”. The real problem and the real threat, said the Minister, comes from China, a country with which “it will be necessary to wrestle”. Because there are issues regarding trade relations with a country that we “cannot just ignore because its values are opposed to ours”.
In the event, the Minister remained optimistic by counting on this ecosystem that is being set up and with this investment that is being made by the State despite “private which is way insufficient”. He also lamented on the deindustrialization of France, especially as compared to that of Germany. He remains optimistic too in spite of those PISA rankings that are bad news for France, which is ranked 26th, far behind South Korea, a country that the Minister, whose father is Korean, knows well and which has gone from rock bottom to world economic stardom just by focusing everything on education.
What is AI to you?
An optimism that was a little tempered, when a member of the audience in the conference room asked him: “What is AI for you?”
A question that seemed embarrassing to the Minister. In the end he got away with it by a verbal sleight of hand by declaring that “AI doesn’t really exist”, quoting Luc Julia and Yann Le Cun, both world-class experts in AI, one with Samsung and Apple, and one with Facebook in California (important notice: Julia wrote a book in French entitled “AI doesn’t exist.)”
It shows that the future of Europe can depend on something that does not exist, which casts serious doubt on the validity of certain policies and the resources and the amount of public money which is put into them. Especially since such antics on the part of experts who pretend in jest that AI doesn’t exist, must not be taken at face value. Things are not as simple as that.