22 August 2019
French President Emmanuel Macron is determined to fulfill his promise to turn France into a “start-up nation”. Photo: Reuters
French President Emmanuel Macron is determined to fulfill his promise to turn France into a “start-up nation”. Photo: Reuters

Banking on maths advantage, France plays catch-up in AI race

Shortly after he took office in 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to turn France into a “start-up nation”, saying he does not wish to see his country and the rest of Europe lagging behind Chinese and US technology giants such as Alphabet’s Google, Microsoft and Alibaba in this field.

But a presidential advisor, who asked not to be identified, told Reuters that the country has actually “missed the boat” in all the latest technological revolutions such as robotics and the internet. France does not have big players in these areas.

France, however, will strive to make use of its traditional strength in mathematics in order to catch up.

The country has the second highest number of recipients of the Fields Medal, which is the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in mathematics.

Many of France’s top mathematicians, however, have been enlisted by large US-based tech firms, principally by GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon).

The presidential advisor said the heads of artificial intelligence in GAFA are often French. They include Yann Lecun, Facebook chief AI scientist, and Luc Julia, Samsung Electronics’ vice president for innovation and co-inventor of Apple’s Siri.

Earlier this year, both Facebook and Google promised to set up AI laboratories in Paris, and are expected to hire talents from France.

French officials, speaking in anonymity, said Macron is expected to make an announcement about his plans on AI development on Thursday, but refused to give more details.

The officials said France would invest funds “commensurate with what is at stake”. 

The presidential advisor said AI is a technology that will offer a “clear economic advantage” to the top nations that use it.

According to Pitchbook data, venture capitalists invested over US$10.8 billion in AI and machine learning firms worldwide last year.

Spending on cognitive and AI systems is expected to reach US$19.1 billion this year, up 54 percent from 2017, according to research firm IDC.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 28

Translation by Jonathan Chong

[Chinese version 中文版]

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