French AI strategy: Tech sector to receive over €2 bln in next 5 years

Interviewed by EURACTIV, the secretary of state said that Europe's primary objective should be to create champions, but that its "its risk-only approach", which relegates innovation to second place is problematic despite it lagging behind major powers like the US for which innovation is the priority. [Mathieu Pollet]

A total of more than €2 billion in public and private funding will be poured into French tech over the next five years to create future champions at the national and European levels, according to phase two of the national AI strategy presented by government ministers on Monday (8 November). EURACTIV France reports.

More than €1.5 billion of these funds will come in the form of public funding, while €506 million will come from private co-financing. This is what Digital Secretary of State Cédric O told players of the French artificial intelligence sector (AI) at the Station F campus on Monday, during an event organised by France Digitale, a lobby group representing over 1,800 startups.

The strategy’s primary objective is “to put the emphasis on the training of talent”, O said, adding that “we absolutely need to ensure that our companies, our research centres and our start-ups have more skills.”

France has set itself the goal of training and financing at least 2,000 undergraduate students, 1,500 master’s students and 200 additional theses per year “at cruising speed” by 2025. By January 2024, the government also hopes to have recruited 15 world-class foreign scientists. More than half of the plan’s public funding will go towards training and talent.

“The challenge is also to integrate artificial intelligence training for all,” said Eve Arakelian, vice-president for marketing and public affairs at Preligens, a company specialising in data analysis for defence and intelligence purposes.

“All citizens, future users and all political or industrial decision-makers must be trained in it,” she told EURACTIV.

The government also wants to focus efforts in the areas of “embedded, frugal and trusted AI”. It has set a target of capturing 10-15% of the global embedded AI market share by 2025.

But O pointed out that French champions do not just emerge overnight. “Like all issues related to network effects, the beginning is complicated,” he said, noting that “this is the history of French tech”.

This new strategy is in reality the continuation of a previous one announced in 2018, which according to the minister aimed to “put France on the world map of AI”.

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Regulating and innovating

In France, the AI ecosystem appears to be doing well as the number of startups has seen an 11% growth from 2020 to 2021, reaching a total of 520. Startups – which currently employ a total of 13,459 people and generate 70,000 indirect jobs – also already raised twice as much funding as last year, going from €708 million in 2020 to €1.6 billion in 2021.

However, despite the good results, the issue of digital regulation, and more particularly its compatibility with the capacity to innovate, quickly came up in the debates.

O especially regretted the “European trend” which considers “regulation before innovation”, saying this is “nonsense”.

Asked by EURACTIV, the secretary of state said Europe’s primary objective should be to create champions but warned that the EU’s problem is its “risk-only approach”, which relegates innovation to second place, while the bloc is already lagging behind major powers like the US, for which innovation is the priority.

“A country that only thinks about its future in terms of risk is a country that is heading for disaster,” he said.

This view was also shared by Higher Education, Research and Innovation Minister Frédérique Vidal. “We have to trust basic research and see what researchers tell us,” Vidal told EURACTIV, saying it was not relevant to “set rules a priori” before having identified the full potential and limits of these technologies.

“Let’s regulate, but let’s be careful that this regulation is not a brake,” said France Digitale’s director, Maya Noël. One cannot invest in AI without “safeguards”, she nevertheless acknowledged in an exchange with EURACTIV, saying that the more privacy-friendly framework carried by the EU could also be a “competitive advantage”.

With the European Parliament currently examining the EU’s future AI regulation as France is set to take over the rotating EU Council presidency in January, O also called for “uniform application throughout the EU” in reference to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which, depending on the country of origin, is applied by local authorities.

The secretary of state also insisted on the need to experiment. “Whatever regulation we adopt, we must leave room for experimentation,” he added.

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[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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