France aims to become a global AI leader with support from US Big Tech.

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French President Emmanuel Macron speaks during a meeting with members of the AI ​​sector at the Elysee Presidential Palace on May 21, 2024 in Paris, France.

Yuan Province | AFP | Getty Images

PARIS — France is positioning itself as the next artificial intelligence superpower.

The Viva Technology conference in Paris last week was buzzing with how far France has come as a leader in AI.

French AI firm H was surrounded, called Holistic, which raised $220 million in a seed funding round from investors including US tech giant Amazon and Eric Schmidt, the billionaire former CEO of Google.

A common theme for big-money French AI firms is that they are adding American tech heavyweights to their shareholder lists.

Earlier this month, France received a flood of new private investment, led by 4 billion euros ($4.4 billion) from Microsoft, the largest ever in France.

AI everywhere at Viva Tech

At Viva Tech, AI was everywhere. Past the big, bright pink “VIVA” sign out front, there was an entire street called “AI Avenue,” surrounded by American tech firms like Salesforce and AWS.

Generative AI was on display everywhere — even from companies you wouldn't expect.

For example, French beauty giant L'Oreal showcased an AI-powered beauty assistant called “Beauty Genius” at a large booth near the center of the Port de Versailles conference venue.

Viva Tech's success has become symbolically important for France as part of its bid to become a major technology and AI hub that can rival the likes of the US and China.

“France is the leader in artificial intelligence in Europe,” French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told CNBC's Arjun Kharpal at Viva Tech last week.

He clarified that, while France is supported by American tech giants, “we want our own artificial intelligence to be created and developed in France.”

Referring to Microsoft's investment in France, Le Maire said, “Microsoft is very welcome in our country. But the challenge for us is to have our own devices, our own scientists… and We are working very hard for it.”

France has a strong AI research and development ecosystem, with key facilities such as the Facebook AI research center from Meta and Google's AI research hub in Paris, as well as leading universities.

“France stands out as Europe's most dynamic innovation hub,” Etienne Grass, France managing director of Capgemini Invent, Capgemini's digital innovation arm, told CNBC. “The nation nurtures a thriving startup scene, marked by significant advances in AI,” Gross added.

Imran Ghori, a partner at Blossom Capital, said France's track record for research and academia was excellent, but it had struggled to attract quality talent to “great companies”.

Ghori said Meta and Google's AI labs have “created a training ground for students and researchers to learn what leading tech companies look like and operate from the inside.”

“Now we're seeing the fruits of this as many researchers and AI engineers start to build their own companies.”

Striving for Tech Leadership

French President Emmanuel Macron told CNBC's Andrew Ross Sorkin in an interview last week that his country is “leading the tech industry in Europe.” However, he noted that Europe is “behind” the US and the continent needs more “big players”.

“It's crazy to have a world where the big giants come only from China and America,” Macron said at the Elysee Palace. He praised Mistral, the French AI firm backed by US tech giant Microsoft, and H.

Last week, Macron met Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, Meta's chief AI scientist Yann Lacon, and James Manica, Google's senior vice president of tech and society, at the Elysée to discuss ways to make Paris world class. can be discussed. AI Center.

Maurice Levy, CEO of advertising and public relations giant Publicis Groupe, told CNBC's Karen Tso that he thinks France has the potential to become a top five country for AI development. Levy said France is “committed” to narrowing the gap between the US and China and Europe when it comes to AI.

Levy said in a TV interview last week that France “could become part of the top five countries on AI in the world,” after the United States, China, Israel and the United Kingdom. He cited H's large funding round as an example of the momentum around French AI.

About 40% of tech demos at Viva Tech were AI, Levy said. AI is “something that is not only taking off, but has already taken off on a fairly large scale,” he said.

In a fireside discussion last week, Google's Manica said the firm's innovation came from engineers in France.

Google's recently introduced Gemma AI, a lightweight, open-source model, was heavily developed at the US internet company's Paris AI center, he said.

France claimed nearly 20% of overall European AI startup funding in 2023, up from an average of 15% of European funding going to AI startups across the bloc, according to data from DelRome. is more

France is not the European AI leader, although UK firms have doubled their investment in both AI and GenAI compared to France, according to Deal Rome.

Innovation vs. Regulation

France's Macron said the challenge for Europe was accelerating AI research and development while also regulating “at an appropriate scale”.

Last week, the European Union approved the AI ​​Act, a landmark law regulating artificial intelligence.

Some tech executives warned that Europe could hold back its AI ambitions with regulation that is too restrictive. France is among the countries that have criticized the EU AI Act for being too restrictive when it comes to innovation.

Pascal Brier, Capgemini's chief innovation officer, said that while regulation is needed to ensure that AI is not allowed to become too powerful, it is important to ensure that new laws such as the AI ​​Act do not mistakenly stifle innovation. “Don't kill.”

He said regulators should avoid enforcing the “precautionary principle” — the idea that AI creators should as a rule avoid doing things that could cause harm.

“There's no way you can stop AI — it's just the end of the beginning,” Brier told CNBC. “It's not going to stop there.”

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