a:hover>:text-gray-63 <&>a:hover>:shadow-underline-black dark:<&>a:hover>:text-gray-bd dark:<&>a:hover>:shadow-underline-gray <&>a>:shadow-underline-gray-63 dark:<&>a>:text-gray-bd dark:<&>a>:shadow-underline-gray">Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge. Photo by Sono Motoyama

a:hover>:text-gray-63 <&>a:hover>:shadow-underline-black dark:<&>a:hover>:text-gray-bd dark:<&>a:hover>:shadow-underline-gray <&>a>:shadow-underline-gray-63 dark:<&>a>:text-gray-bd dark:<&>a>:shadow-underline-gray">Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge. Photo by Sono Motoyama
On a crisp Saturday morning in Orsay, a southwestern suburb of Paris with some 16,500 inhabitants, the rue de Paris was bustling. But while many residents were doing their usual weekend shopping at the fishmonger or the butcher shop, further up the street, in a small former chateau that is now the town’s cultural center, about 80 people had mix aside their late-morning hours to lớn hear the “voeux” of their legislative representative to lớn the National Assembly, Cédric Villani.

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The voeux, or “new year’s wishes,” are a standard exercise of French politicians from the president on down, in which they reviews activities of the past year & lay out projects for the year to come. Villani, a mathematician & Fields Medal winner (often shorthanded as the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in mathematics), was new khổng lồ the practice; only six months earlier, he was still an academic. He was dressed as always — winter or summer — in a black three-piece suit, a shirt with cufflinks, a spider brooch on his lapel, and a large, floppy tie called a lavallière (today’s version in purple). He cut an unmistakable figure, sporting a three-day beard, his dark hair styled in a pageboy. He mingled, smiling with attendees, và posed for selfies before taking the stage.

He was dressed as always in a đen three-piece suit, a shirt with cufflinks, a spider brooch on his lapel, and a large, floppy tie 

The fact that a mathematician could be considered, as he is, a “rock star” — or, better yet, “the Lady Gaga of mathematics” — says perhaps more about the French than Villani. Nonetheless, Villani, 44, has become a darling of President Emmanuel Macron’s young technocratic government, accompanying the president khổng lồ Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in November và Beijing in mid-January. The government has piled the work on his desk, which is evidence, Villani says, of the need for people with scientific expertise in politics. But of all his projects — from math education to lớn the future of New Caledonia lớn tax evasion — perhaps his most all-consuming mission is his task force on artificial intelligence và the highly anticipated report it’s set to lớn release tomorrow. If successful, the report will help phối the AI agenda in France and Europe for years to lớn come.

In view of a world where “artificial intelligence will be everywhere, lượt thích electricity,” as Villani has said, becoming a leader in the field is critical for France. Many feel that Europe is already at an enormous disadvantage compared lớn the US and china and will need to do some Usain Bolt-style sprinting to catch up. For one thing, France và Europe don’t have the data-gathering platforms necessary lớn fuel machine learning: they lack the power of what the acronym-loving French hotline GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon). French bureaucracy has also historically been a drag on entrepreneurship and invention. Compared lớn the US, cooperation between academia and industry is much less frequent. & though France is known for the chất lượng of its engineers and scientists, much of the top-level talent goes abroad, where there is more money và freedom to pursue research without constraints. Addressing these issues by sketching the nation’s AI road map has fallen on the well-tailored shoulders of Villani.

Several months before delivering his new year’s wishes, after a local TEDx presentation in November on “How AI Will Revolutionize Health,” I sat down with Villani, who was cordial if a bit distant. After winning the Fields Medal, Villani, a self-described “formerly shy” person, took a truyền thông media training workshop. His large eyes, luminous skin, thin body, và slightly walleyed expression accentuated the impression of speaking to lớn an “extraterrestrial,” as Paris Match once put it.

The report Villani is set to lớn release isn’t a first for France. At the very over of François Hollande’s presidency last spring, his administration released a rushed AI report, offering broad brushstrokes. But, Villani says, his report should offer both “a panorama … and make a diagnosis of the subject…. It must pose questions explicitly and offer practical solutions and implementations.”

Villani) is made up of a machine learning researcher, an engineer with the defense ministry, và four members of a French digital giải pháp công nghệ advisory council, with expertise in everything from philosophy to lớn law. The group was charged with a broad-ranging mission, covering industrial, data policy, employment và training, environmental, ethical, & research issues. Contrary to lớn the reports issued by the Obama administration (which one international observer notes “have not led khổng lồ a single bit of U.S. Policy”), Villani’s team expects that some concrete measures will be put into play within months. Focusing on four key sectors — health, transportation, environment, và defense — the team also emphasizes that it has devoted substantial attention khổng lồ the ethics of data policy within the context of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which is slated to lớn go into effect in May & will broaden privacy protections for individuals in Europe. Considering the current Facebook meltdown over the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the French team has probably chosen wisely. As for the question of financing, while France’s previous AI report suggested a 1.5 billion-euro investment in AI, it is unclear precisely how much funding will be allotted.

“The subject had grown so significantly that you would have to have been blind and deaf not khổng lồ be interested.”

Given the breadth & complexity of the subject of artificial intelligence, a skeptic may doubt one man’s ability lớn understand the field without years of study, but there is probably no other thành viên of Parliament better suited to lớn lead this project on the subject. By all accounts a quick study with an enormous work capacity & a diplomatic, optimistic temperament, Villani was, of course, also a high-level researcher in a related field, which helped him grasp AI concepts quickly.

Asked if he had an interest in artificial intelligence before he was assigned khổng lồ the task force, Villani enunciated clearly & deliberately in his high-pitched, slightly theatrical French: “The subject had grown so significantly that you would have to lớn have been blind & deaf not lớn be interested.” In any case, “the big concerns are not really about the most technical issues.” He has indicated in the past that he hopes lớn avoid AI’s potentially “devastating effects on economic issues & the democratic fabric,” partly by making sure that AI is “everybody’s business.” Hence his large-scale offensive in the French press to lớn educate the public and his push to seek broad-ranging input đầu vào for his report.

In November, Villani estimated that he would speak to lớn 250 people for the AI report & finish it by the kết thúc of January. But, solicited by hundreds of people who wanted their say, he kept speaking khổng lồ more & more parties. (“He always says yes,” said one of his team members.) Among these were scientists, lawyers, doctors, philosophers, labor union representatives, business leaders, startup entrepreneurs, and even one roundtable of 15 girls, who discussed the involvement of girls in the sciences. In the end, the task force interviewed about 350 people in groups of 10 khổng lồ 15, gathered according to lớn topic, in an off-white conference room at the Digital Ministry. There were also 1,600 contributors on a public online platform.

Now, the report is slated lớn be officially delivered khổng lồ the president at a March 29th ceremony at Paris’ Collège de France, which will be attended by an estimated 500 guests, with the participation of tech-celebrity guests like Facebook’s chief AI scientist and deep-learning guru Yann Le

AI experts in France và abroad are anxious khổng lồ see the report. “Governments around the world are struggling with whether they have to vì chưng something preemptively about AI,” said Joshua Gans, professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto & co-author of the forthcoming Prediction Machines: The Simple Economics of Artificial Intelligence. “There have been a lot of concerns about potential issues, from safety to lớn jobs to lớn what are its privacy implications.”

“Governments around the world are struggling with whether they have to vì something preemptively about AI.”

If he had to lớn sum up international government reaction to AI, Gans said, “it is a great dropping of the ball … not so much on the research side but on ensuring that privacy laws are up to lớn date & moving toward international agreements … on autonomous weapons.” The fact that France has put a “very high-profile person” in charge of the task force attests to how seriously it is taking these issues, he said.

Jean-Gabriel Ganascia, a professor of computer science at the Sorbonne & author of Le mythe de la singularité (“The Myth of the Singularity”), was one of the people interviewed by Villani & his team. “We’re waiting for the report and then its translation into concrete actions,” Ganascia said. “The important thing is not khổng lồ write reports và create strategies. We have to lớn act.”

And there is not a moment to lớn waste; some maintain that it is already too late for France và Europe. “A country that doesn’t have an AI industry will be underdeveloped tomorrow. It will be a slow process of technical, political và military colonization,” said provocateur Laurent Alexandre, tác giả of La guerre des intelligences (“The Intelligence War”), in an interview with the French business daily Les Echos. Noting the dominance of American and Chinese tech giants, he said, “Europe has completely lost the AI battle.”

Roxanne Varza, the 33-year-old American director of Paris’ new Station F, which bills itself as the world’s biggest startup campus, let out a melodious laugh when I mentioned Alexandre’s grim views. “That is such a passé view,” she said, sitting in a glass-walled room overlooking her quái vật tech playground. “Maybe you could have said that five years ago, but I don’t think you can say that anymore. With the Brexit climate, Donald Trump, high Silicon Valley prices, the political situation worldwide, & with Macron now in power nguồn in France, I think we’ve seen a huge shift.”

“We need more infrastructure, we need a European cloud, we need more European intensive computing centers.”

In fact, Varza said, the đứng top countries that apply for programs at Station F are the US & the UK, respectively. “France has a huge opportunity in space because French engineers and data scientists are so well known.” và feared American tech giants Facebook and Microsoft are right on the Station F campus, apparently eager to tap into some of that je ne sais quoi in Macron’s “Start-up Nation.” (Add to this the announcement made earlier this year about Facebook’s 10 million-euro investment in France for AI research and a Google AI research center in Paris.)

For his part, Villani doesn’t want an AI war; he wants competition, yes, but also collaboration, such as one he mix up with Microsoft when he was director of the Institut Henri Poincaré, a prestigious math institute. At an “Ask Me Anything” sự kiện at Station F, he said, “We need more infrastructure, we need a European cloud, we need more European intensive computing centers, we need a European hardware industry, we need more European research centers — và that will take time & money. But it’s worth it because that will European sovereignty. And it should be constructed not in an ambiance of war but in the spirit of competition.”

Marc Schoenauer, 60, Villani’s guide in the AI netherworld, arrived at a dive bar south of Paris on a motorcycle, his long, wavy gray hair và beard askew, wearing a baggy sweater and jeans. If Villani’s attire & studied manner evoke a 19th century dandy with Goth overtones, Schoenauer gives off a former hippie vibe. A researcher at the French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation (Inria), Schoenauer has spent 30 years studying artificial intelligence and is the AI expert on Villani’s task force. He accepted the invitation, he said, “naively,” ignorant of the long hours and the months the report would go into overtime.

During the task force’s three-hour hearings, Schoenauer said, interviewees would, one by one, make a statement of their recommendations, which would be followed by a discussion, after which Villani would circle back to lớn issues that interested him. Each task force member was responsible for a chapter of the approximately 200-page document, which would then be reread by their colleagues. In the final phase, a draft was distributed to French ministries for feedback on the feasibility of the recommendations & the necessary funding.

On working with Villani, Schoenauer commented, “He’s very impressive, first of all, because of the amount of work he can do.” He also noted that Villani had to head or contribute to other task forces & is a regular thành viên of Parliament. Furthermore, Schoenauer said, “He remembers everything that was said in the hearings và fills up small notebooks. Later, he knows exactly which notebook he put the note in.”

“I think his motivation is pure in politics. It’s not at all khổng lồ put himself forward,” said his task force collaborator Yann Bonnet, general secretary of the French digital advisory commission Conseil National du Numérique. “He’s a very good politician. … He always listened carefully, found compromises, was able khổng lồ understand the balance of power. … It made it so everyone was happy to lớn have contributed lớn the task force.”

“I’ve never seen him angry,” said another task force member, Anne-Charlotte Cornut. “I never heard him raise his voice in the six months we worked together. & we worked 24 hours a day.”

Schoenauer allowed that perhaps Villani enjoys his public profile & persuading others lớn his point of view. However, contrary to lớn the “shocking” attitude of some cabinet members & politicians who “don’t give a shit,” he said of Villani, “I think he’s motivated to vì something useful for France & mankind in general.”

Interviewed this month in a private room at Le Bourbon, a brasserie favored by the French political elite, Villani said he was motivated to lớn enter politics because of what he saw as the recent “chaos” in French politics. And Macron’s pro-European, “neither right-wing nor left-wing” stance suited Villani’s own long-held political views.

“There was a need lớn serve the nation in a moment of great confusion, & the idea that this was a chance that shouldn’t be missed.” He continued, sometimes spasmodically tapping the table for emphasis, “During the second round of voting , it was possible that it was going khổng lồ be a choice between the extreme left or the extreme right. It was chaos!”

Villani admits that, as a new representative, he had lớn learn “everything” about political life. “You learn the way laws are made, how political influence works, relations between groups, cultural questions, work on constitutional reform,” he enumerated.

When it was suggested that some mathematicians might not understand the abandonment of research by one of its highest practitioners, he was slightly defensive. “Every time scientists have the feeling that there’s a subject that mixes science and politics — baf! — they come to see me, or they write me.” He said he had spoken lớn a half-dozen AI researchers just that morning who urgently wanted to explain their point of view. “I see in all these examples how important it is lớn have scientists in politics. It’s important for politics. It’s important for science.”

As for the long-awaited AI report, Villani is satisfied. “I think we have the diagnosis, I think we have the recommendations, và I think we’ve listened to enough people khổng lồ be fairly sure of our recommendations,” he said, noting that not only had his team formally interviewed hundreds of experts, but his constant presence at conferences large & small, as well as his blanket coverage in the mainstream truyền thông media have elicited feedback — good and not so good — from government and industry observers.

“When you do an interview in a mass circulation publication, if there’s something wrong in what you say, you can be sure that people will tell you so!” Villani remarked.

He paused to take a sip of orange juice. His pale skin seemed a bit gray, having lost the translucent glow observed during a previous meeting. While his colleague Marc Schoenauer was looking forward khổng lồ returning to lớn his research after the delivery of the AI report (“I learned a lot … but that’s it now”), Villani’s talents will be required for its implementation.

“It’s not the end, but it’s a step we’ve taken,” Villani said of the report’s completion. “We’re going lớn the next stage of the mission.” A waiter informed him he had a group of people waiting in the wings to lớn meet with him. The deputé seemed game, if a little tired. He was still on the nation’s clock.

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