Europe’s AI ‘champion’ eyes tech giants in US

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Arthur Mensch, with long, lanky hair, arrived last month in jeans and a bicycle helmet for a speech at a sprawling Paris tech hub. He finds a man European officials are counting on to help put the region in a high-stakes position with the United States and China on artificial intelligence.

Mr Mensch, 31, is the chief executive and founder of Mistral, which many consider one of the most promising challengers to OpenAI and Google. “You’ve become the poster child for AI in France,” Matt Clifford, a British investor, told him on stage.

Much is riding on Mr Mensch, whose company has risen to the limelight just a year after he founded it with two college friends in Paris. As Europe seeks to gain a foothold in the AI ​​revolution, the French government has named Mistral as its best hope to become a standard bearer, and is lobbying EU policymakers to help ensure the firm’s success. Who is

Artificial intelligence will become increasingly integrated into the global economy in the coming decade, and policymakers and business leaders in Europe fear that growth and competitiveness will suffer if the region does not keep up. Behind their concerns is the belief that AI should not be dominated by tech giants like Microsoft and Google, which can create global standards that conflict with the culture and politics of other countries. The biggest question at stake is which artificial intelligence models will affect the world, and how they should be managed.

“The problem with not having a European champion is that the United States sets the roadmap,” said Mr Mensch, who just 18 months ago was working as an engineer at Google’s DeepMind Lab in Paris, building AI models. were Its co-founders, Timothée Lacroix and Guillaume Lampel, also held similar positions at Meta in the 1930s.

In an interview at Mistral’s spartan, white-washed offices facing the Canal St. Martin in Paris, Mr. Mensch said the American tech giants are setting the ground rules for a powerful new technology that will affect millions of lives.

“We cannot have a strategic dependency,” he said. “That’s why we want to be European champions.”

Europe has struggled to develop meaningful tech companies since the dot-com boom. According to a report by France’s Artificial Intelligence Commission, as the U.S. replaced Google, Mita and Amazon, and China developed Alibaba, Huawei and ByteDance, which owns TikTok, in powering Europe’s digital economy. Failed, according to a report by France’s Artificial Intelligence Commission. The 15-member committee – which includes Mr Mensch – warned that Europe was lagging behind on AI, but said it had the potential to take the lead.

Mistral’s innovative AI technology allows businesses to launch chatbots, search functions and other AI-powered products. It has surprised many by creating a model that rivals the technology developed at OpenAI, the US startup that ignited the AI ​​boom in 2022 with the ChatGPT chatbot. Named after a powerful wind in France, Mistral has quickly gained ground by developing a more flexible and cost-effective machine learning tool. Some major European firms are starting to use its technology, including Renault, the French auto giant, and financial services giant BNP Paribas.

The French government is strongly supporting Mistral. President Emmanuel Macron has hailed the company as an example of “French genius” and hosted Mr Mensch for dinner at the Elysée presidential palace. Bruno Le Maire, the country’s finance minister, often praises the company, while Cédric O, former French digital minister, is an adviser to Mistral and owns a stake in the startup.

The French government’s backing is a sign of the growing importance of AI. The United States, France, Britain, China, Saudi Arabia and many other countries are trying to strengthen their domestic capabilities, starting a technological arms race that affects trade and foreign policy as well as global supply chains. is doing

The Mistral emerged as the strongest European contender in World War II. Yet many question whether the company can compete with larger American and Chinese rivals and develop a sustainable business model. In addition to the considerable technical challenges of building a successful AI company, the computing power required is staggeringly expensive. (France says its cheap nuclear power can meet energy demand.)

OpenAI has raised $13 billion, and Anthropic, another San Francisco firm, has raised more than $7.3 billion. Mistral has raised about 500 million euros, or $540 million, so far, and has earned “several millions” in recurring revenue, Mr. Mensch said. But in a sign of Mistral’s promise, Microsoft took a small stake in February, and Salesforce and chipmaker Nvidia have backed the startup.

“This may be one of the best shots we have in Europe,” said Janet Zoe Furstenberg, managing director of General Catalyst and founding partner of La Famiglia, two venture capital firms that invested in Mistral. “You basically have a very powerful technology that will unlock value.”

Mistral subscribes to the view that AI software should be open source, meaning the programming codes should be available for anyone to copy, adapt or reuse. Proponents say that allowing other researchers to see the code would make the system more secure and economic by accelerating its use among businesses and governments for applications such as accounting, customer service and database searches. Growth will take place. This week, Mistral released the latest version of its model online for anyone to download.

OpenAI and Anthropic, by contrast, are keeping their platforms closed. Open source is dangerous, he says, because it can be co-opted for nefarious purposes, such as spreading disinformation — or even creating AI-powered weapons of mass destruction.

Mr. Mensch dismissed concerns such as the narrative of a “fear-mongering lobby” that includes Google, Microsoft and Amazon, which he says are trying to consolidate their dominance by persuading policymakers to enact such rules. There are those who crush the competitors.

The biggest threat of AI, Mr. Mensch added, is that it will revolutionize the workplace, eliminating some jobs while creating new ones that will require retraining. “It’s coming faster than previous revolutions,” he said, “not in 10 years but more in two years.”

Mr Mensch, who grew up in a family of scientists, said he was fascinated by computers from an early age, learning to program at the age of 11. He played video games avidly until age 15, when he decided he “could do better things. With his time.” After graduating from two top French universities, École Polytechnique and École Normale Supérieure, he became an academic researcher at France’s prestigious National Center for Scientific Research in 2020. But he soon turned to DeepMind, an AI lab acquired by Google, to learn about the industry and become an entrepreneur.

When ChatGPT took off in 2022, Mr Mensch teamed up with his university friends, who decided he could do the same or better in France. In the company’s airy workspace, a troop of shoe-clad scientists and programmers now tap keyboards, coding and feeding digital text culled from the Internet, as well as reams of 19th-century French literature, which No longer subject to copyright. Law – in the company’s major language model.

Mr. Mensch said he was troubled by Silicon Valley’s “extremely religious” fascination with the concept of artificial general intelligence, at a time when tech leaders such as Elon Musk and Sam Altman believe that computers will surpass human cognitive ability. will leave, with potentially serious consequences. .

“The whole AGI rhetoric is about creating God,” he said. “I don’t believe in God. I am a staunch atheist. So I don’t believe in AGI.”

Another imminent threat to cultures around the world is posed by American AI giants, he said.

“These models are creating content and shaping our cultural understanding of the world,” Mr Mensch said. “And as it turns out, the values ​​of France and the values ​​of the United States differ in subtle but important ways.”

With his growing influence, Mr Mensch has stepped up his calls for lighter regulation, warning that restrictions will hurt innovation. Last fall, France successfully lobbied Brussels to limit regulation of open-source AI systems in the EU’s new Artificial Intelligence Act, a victory that keeps Mistral on the fast track to development. Helps to keep

“If Mistral becomes a major technological force,” said Mr Oh, the former digital minister who led the lobbying effort, “it will be beneficial for the whole of Europe.”

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