Artificial intelligence

France and Britain battle for the European AI crown

  • French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak have made bold statements on artificial intelligence.
  • At VivaTech in Paris, Macron announced new funding of 500 million euros ($560.1) to create new AI “champions”.
  • While the UK government previously pledged £1 billion ($1.3 billion) to supercomputing and AI research.
  • Who will be victorious in the race for victory in AI will depend on a number of factors.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron.

Kincheung | Swimming pool | Getty Images

LONDON — Two countries are vying for the place of European capital of artificial intelligence.

French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak have made bold statements about AI in recent weeks as each tries to claim a stake in the highly publicized market.

“I think we’re number one [in AI] in continental Europe, and we need to accelerate,” Macron told CNBC’s Karen Tso at France’s annual Viva Tech tech conference on June 18, while Sunak touted the UK as the “geographic home of global regulation on AI Security” at the London Tech Week conference on June 12.

AI is considered revolutionary and therefore strategic importance to governments around the world.

The hype around the technology was partly sparked by the viral nature of Microsoft– Supported OpenAI’s ChatGPT. It has also been the source of technological tensions between the United States and China as countries around the world attempt to harness the potential of the most critical technologies.

So who is leading the race to win the European AI crown?

At VivaTech in Paris, Macron announced 500 million euros ($562 million) new funds to create new AI “champions”. This is in addition to previous government commitments, including a promise to inject 1.5 billion euros into artificial intelligence before 2022, in an attempt to catch up with the American and Chinese markets.

“We are going to invest like crazy in training and research,” Macron told CNBC, adding that France is well positioned in AI because of its access to talent and startups forming around the technology.

In March, the British government pledged £1 billion ($1.3 billion) to supercomputing and AI research, as it appears to be becoming a “science and technology superpower.”

As part of this strategy, the government has stated that it wants spend around £900m on building an “exascale” computer capable of building its own “BritGPT”, which would rival OpenAI’s generative AI chatbot.

However, some officials criticized the pledge of funding, saying it was not enough to help the UK compete with titans like the US and China.

“It sounds great, but it’s nowhere near where we need to be,” said Sajid Javid, a former government minister in former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s cabinet, during a discussion at the fireside at London Tech Week.

A big difference between the UK and France is how each country chooses to regulate artificial intelligence and the laws already in place that affect the rapidly changing technology.

The European Union has its AI law, which is expected to be the first comprehensive set of AI-focused laws in the West. The legislation has been endorsed by European Parliament lawmakers in June.

It assesses different AI applications based on risk – for example, real-time biometric identification and social rating systems are considered to pose “unacceptable risk” and are therefore prohibited under the regulations.

France will be under the direct jurisdiction of the AI ​​law, and it would be “not surprising” if the relevant French regulator, whether the CNIL or a new AI-specific regulator, took an “aggressive approach” for its application, according to Minesh Tanna, global head of AI at international law firm Simmons & Simmons.

In the UK, rather than enacting AI-specific laws, the government has launched a white paper advising various industry regulators on how they should apply existing rules in their respective sectors. The white paper takes a principles-based approach to regulating AI.

The government presented the framework as a “flexible” approach to regulation, which Tanna described as more “pro-innovation” than the French method.

“The UK’s approach is driven, in a post-Brexit world, by a desire to encourage investment in AI,” he added, giving the UK more “freedom and flexibility to come up with regulation at the appropriate level to encourage investment,” he said in an email to CNBC.

By contrast, the EU’s AI law could make France “less attractive” for investment in artificial intelligence given that it establishes “a heavy regulatory regime” for AI, Tanna said.

“France certainly has a chance to be the leader in Europe, but it faces stiff competition from Germany and the UK,” Anton Dahbura, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Assured Autonomy, told CNBC. by email.

Alexandre Lebrun, CEO of Nabla, an AI “co-pilot” for doctors, said the UK and France are “probably on par” when it comes to attractiveness to start an AI business.

“There is a good pool of talent, strongholds like the AI ​​research centers of Google and Facebook, and a reasonable local market,” he told CNBC, but he warned that European law on AI would make it “impossible” for startups to develop AI in the EU.

“If at the same time the UK passes a smarter law, it will certainly win against the EU and France,” added Lebrun.

At the same time, London has been the source of much woe and sadness from some corners of the industry, who have criticized the country for being an unattractive place for tech entrepreneurs.

Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labor Party, told London Tech Week attendees that a series of political crises in the country had shaken investor sentiment towards technology in general.

“A lot of investors tell me that we’re not investing in the UK right now because we don’t see politically the conditions of certainty that we need to invest,” Starmer said.

Claire Trachet, CFO of French tech startup YesWeHack, said the UK and France both have the potential to challenge the dominance of US AI giants – but it’s as much about collaboration across Europe as competition between different hubs.

“This would require a concerted and collective effort by Europe’s tech superpowers,” she said. “To truly make a meaningful impact, they must leverage their collective resources, foster collaboration, and invest in building a strong ecosystem.”

“Combining forces – especially with Germany’s involvement – could allow them to create a compelling alternative within the next 10-15 years that disrupts the AI ​​landscape, but again this would require a strongly strategy and a collaborative approach,” added Trachet.

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