PARIS — In the 1950s, French President Charles de Gaulle understood that if France wanted to create its own space for sovereign action in a world dominated by the United states and the Soviet Union, it had to possess its own nuclear force. Today, in the emerging global order dominated by the United States and China, artificial intelligence has become the most powerful resource that will determine the fate of nations in the times ahead. The only chance for not just France but Europe as a whole to remain a player is to participate fully in the development of AI.
The robust competition between America and China is accelerating the rapid evolution of machine learning, which will transform all aspects of life from employment and the social contract to genetic engineering and warfare. The pace of change is so swift that being left behind will make it nearly impossible to catch up. If that happens, Europe will become irretrievably subordinated to the geopolitical algorithms of others.
A new book by AI technologist and entrepreneur Kai-Fu Lee, “AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order,” ought to serve as a loud wakeup call for Europe. Not surprisingly, Europe warrants little ink in Lee’s book. As Lee sees it, while Silicon Valley and China are driving each other forward in the advance of AI, with an entrepreneurial frenzy abetted by abundant capital and a densely connected consumer base, Europe lacks a comparable innovation ecosystem or integrated digital marketplace. Its default alternative has been simply to accept the full platforms of the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter. In essence, Europe has become a colony in the American tech empire.
Because emergent technologies arise in response to social demand, Lee does, however, see an opening for Europe. While AI development in China and the United States is driven primarily by the quest for data and analytics that can be used commercially, Europeans are focused more on protecting the privacy of the user. As Lee told us in an interview: “That will cause the American giants some amount of trouble and may give local European entrepreneurs the chance to build something that is more consumer and individual-centric and that would go further than American companies would ever contemplate in protecting privacy.”
Europe’s leaders should seize this opportunity by fostering a continent-wide collaboration to put its distinct stamp on AI. The most promising prospect for Europe would be to blaze a different path than the United States or China. It could put its resources behind the proposal of Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, to “re-decentralize” the Internet, both to assure a fairer allocation of the digital dividend and hand back control of personal data from big tech to individuals.
This culture-bound constraint on data collection, in turn, would reorient the development of AI in a more social instead of consumer-marketing direction, which has been the main focus of both China and Silicon Valley. Europe could further choose to compete where it has an advantage in basic science. Just as Europe joined together to create the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator, European nations could cooperate on a project to be the first to build super-intelligent machines, ones that surpass human capacities.
The potential is there. The Scandinavian countries, of course, have long been engaged in the fray with such innovations as Skype and Spotify. Germany has its own digital modernization strategy, “Industry 4.0,” aimed at upgrading its manufacturing base through machine-learning tools. And though not gaining much traction so far, Chancellor Angela Merkel has highlighted the importance of European Union investment in AI. She has even mused that Europe could present a third way for AI.
France, a core nation of Europe alongside Germany, can make a critical contribution. As the most active modernizer on the European scene today, French President Emmanuel Macron is well positioned to promote Europe’s role as a third pillar of the AI revolution. Like de Gaulle in his time, Macron has an intuitive sense of what it takes to stay in the game — and a bold political imagination to figure out how to do so. From his first days in office, he has focused on invigorating Europe’s entrepreneurial culture and bolstering state support for innovation, especially in AI.
“My goal is to recreate a European sovereignty in AI,” he said. “If you want to manage your own choice of society, your choice of civilization, you have to be able to be an acting part of this AI revolution.” Drawing on his country’s heritage as a cradle of scientific discovery and the Enlightenment, he has recruited the brainy mathematician and AI guru Cédric Villani to lay the foundation for France’s effort.
Macron is on the right track. The AI challenge may be just the summons a continent torn apart by persistent centrifugal forces — financial crisis, immigration and populism — needs to embrace unity more fully. An ambitious historic project aimed at reaping the economic benefits of AI, securing an independent presence for European values in the new world order and leading a scientific breakthrough to superintelligence would provide a binding narrative for a continent adrift. Such a moonshot vision would be far more compelling for Europeans than the tired pitch from Brussels that dourly sells a common Europe as canned spinach, something the paternal authorities say is good for you but that everyone hates.
Belatedly grasping what is at stake, E.U. regulators are now taking rearguard action against American big tech through the General Data Protection Regulation and other means. But if Europe wants to get ahead of the game, to recover the sovereign ability to chart its own course, it needs an innovation ecosystem that makes it the author of its own algorithms while at the same time building on its unique strengths in science.