The AI France Summit: The Race to World Domination

Artificial intelligence. These two words have become synonymous with exponential change and the next stage of human evolution. Among this global race to unlock machine intelligence, France is on a mission to establish itself as a leader.

As part of a national strategy, France has made significant advances towards AI innovation. This includes hosting the AI France Summit, now in its second year. Whilst it seems some time ago now, given the recent events in the world, in March, we attended the 2020 Summit in Paris, hosted by TECH IN France and the Ministry of Economy and Finance, and we thought we would share you with a summary and key themes which came up during the day!

The transformational power of AI systems has been championed in France, with over 650 native start-ups developing such technology. Macron’s government has also played an active role in shaping Europe’s digital blueprint on AI, as well as launching ecosystems such as La French Tech, and le Village de l’IA, the first European centre of its kind.

The reality of AI

With so much emphasis being placed on AI, one would think that the answer to success lies within such technology. However, this myth has been partially dispelled. The findings of a study conducted by EY on behalf of the OPIIEC showed that AI is not always the optimal solution for businesses and in a study conducted by PwC, fewer businesses will take up AI in 2020 compared to last year. Therefore, we need to get past the hype and focus on reality.

However, with the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic, perhaps we will see the prediction of less AI use in 2020 altered. For example, Kwalys, a French company who have created a system to design chatbots without having to write a single line of code, are testing a CovBot in order to pre-diagnose patients.

Global competition

As optimistic as the French are in relation to their strength in the field of AI, it would be foolish not to acknowledge the fierce competition they face from the East and the West.

Whilst Europe has the potential to lead in this field, it lacks the level of funding seen in China and the US. Also, as seen with China, having a leader in the field helps to create a certain technical standard in the market. In this respect, AI in Europe has not reached the ubiquity that is apparent in Asia.

There is also a risk for French (and European) AI developers of overly relying on the US through the use of cloud and web services provided by the tech giants Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Apple.

Tech and language hurdles

France’s Digital Secretary of State, Cedric O, highlighted the country’s strategy for AI cannot progress without internationalism. English is the de facto business language of the world, but its penetration into scientific journals is even more pertinent. Whilst China leads the way in terms of quantity of scientific publications, accounting for nearly one-fifth of all science and engineering papers listed in the Scopus database in 2018, the ability to not share research in English can be fatal to your work.

Looking further, we have the issue of interoperability and omnichannel compatibility at the technology level. Developers must ensure that the languages used work with other systems and remain transparent for end users. In reality, we need more of an open discussion across all sectors to create compatible systems.

The importance of such multi-disciplinary dialogue has already been acknowledged by large global players, with collaborations between Samsung and Marriott Hotels to create AI-driven room heating, and EDF, Thales and Total at Paris-Saclay.

Big data versus open data

If a lack of open dialogue is seen in this area, it is not a surprise. It all comes back to the great problem of open data. We are sure you have all heard the saying data is the new oil by now; and no one wants to share their oil.

However, data is the crucial element in the machine learning stage of developing AI. This is an even greater challenge for France, as competitors from the US, China and India already have large banks of data to tap into.

France needs to industrialise machine learning, in order to make data sets more readily available. French leader Criteo has made available a data set, which is anonymised data that people can use to test their code and machine learning, which has been used by researchers at Berkeley and Google.

There are suggestions for a free market for data. Whilst this could be logistically possible, it would be a legal nightmare. Nonetheless, there is enough data in Europe and the recent European Commission White Paper on AI showed that there is a demand for a certain level of fluidity of data.

Avoiding bias

Avoiding bias in AI is something that both science and business have struggled with; and the root cause lies within the data used. AI is only as good as the data feeding it, and this is where creating with transparency in mind is important. For scientists however, despite their best intentions, it can be difficult to pinpoint when bias is introduced into a system.

Avoiding such bias is crucial as it often leads to unlawful discrimination. An example of this can be seen with the Amazon recruitment bias case, where it was found that the algorithm used to process candidate files had a tendency to reject females for technical roles and to favour them for HR roles. This was due to the bias that was integrated into the algorithm as the system was trained using internal records from the last decade.

And what does the law say?

The General Data Protection Regulation (2016/679) (GDPR), heralded the champion of data protection and the new global reference point, is now seen by some as a roadblock to the path of innovation. This would be an overstatement, as so far, the GDPR is the only effective text to regulate AI use in Europe.

However, smart regulation does need to be more agile and it is no secret that the GDPR is not fully compatible with the development of AI. Regardless of this, French companies would be shooting themselves in the foot if they were to ignore its importance. The Privacy by Design and by Default principle is one of the best ways to ensure legal compliance.

Emphasis is placed on rights because this is seen as the potential USP of European AI. Věra Jourová, VP for Values and Transparency at the EC stated that “these rights are about European DNA, and not having to go the Chinese way or the US way. Europe shall ensure that it will put its people first, not the States”. Such discourse from Jourová is no surprise when you consider that she is the woman who negotiated the provisions of the GDPR.

At what cost?

A fear that accompanies the use of AI throughout the world is the alleged loss of employment it brings with it. However, AI presents the re-evaluation of work, not the end of it. Another reason that AI will not mean the obliteration of human workers, is that such systems lack the soft skills that humans can bring to a workplace. However, conversational AI systems such as Ivy are now being trained in France to recognise and respond to small talk. And do not underestimate the plethora of new opportunities that this industry will present is a huge opportunity for future French employees.

Talent of tomorrow

France is not only fighting with other countries for funding and market share, but also for talent. It is not uncommon for talented young French engineers and scientists to be tempted by the riches offered by tech giants abroad. Coupled with the millennial desire to travel the world and flexibility to mould their careers, France has a real risk of running out of talent.

Now more than ever, France needs to look at addressing the gender imbalance in the tech industry. Women only make up 17% of all people in this field despite there being more women than men in Europe as a whole, and female tech workers have been found to outperform their male peers by 63% as stated by Jourová. Bruno Sportisse, President of INRIA drew attention to the fact that there are ten times more men than women who take digital classes in French universities. He stated that this needs to change by portraying a more positive message and inclusive atmosphere from an early stage.

Let us know what you think

France has established the infrastructure required to accelerate home-grown innovation. However, faced with a strict regulatory environment and fierce competition from both sides of the globe, they must look to further collaboration with European players and harnessing the power of tomorrow’s talent.

We would love to hear what our fellow TechGirls think of the future of AI – can your country be at the forefront of the AI leadership race?!

Report with great thanks from Komal Shemar, helping out our TechGirl, Charlotte Gerrish @ Gerrish Legal!

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