In recent months, France has had a good star when it comes to artificial intelligence (AI). The US software giant Microsoft announced additional investments of four billion euros in data centers and AI by 2027 at an investor summit in Paris in mid-May.

“The [new] data center, which will be one of the largest in Europe, will put us at the forefront of data storage and AI,” said French President Emmanuel Macron. In the summer of 2023, he initiated a state AI plan: 500 million euros should flow into the creation of AI research clusters by 2030. Last December, the Paris startup Mistral AI became a unicorn through a capital increase – a company worth more than a billion dollars. Mistral AI is considered a competitor to OpenAI, the developer of the chatbot ChatGPT. Nevertheless, France and Europe still have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to AI, experts say.

“France’s government flipped a switch and decided that the country should become one of the main players in AI – unlike Germany,” Noah Greene told DW. He is a research assistant in the project team on AI security at the think tank Center for New American Security in the US capital Washington. “But so far the USA is in first place, then comes China, some way behind Great Britain and finally France and Germany as numbers one and two in the European Union,” explains Greene, for whom this gap is not only due to technological reasons.

“The USA has been the market leader for so long that many investors prefer to invest their money here because they know there is the necessary talent and infrastructure here,” he says. “France, on the other hand, is known for its restrictive labor market legislation, which tech giants like Google have struggled with in the past.”

But for Véronique Ventos, co-founder of the Paris startup NukkAI, it was always clear that her company would be based in France. “There are excellent researchers here and numerous government funding programs,” Ventos, who previously researched AI at the University of Paris-Saclay, told DW. The startup NukkAI, which was founded in 2018 and now has a team of 25 people, caused a sensation in 2022 when its AI beat the world champions of the card game Bridge in a specially organized tournament.

“Our AI is different from others because people are an integral part of the system – they can follow processes and receive precise explanations from the AI ​​for its recommendations,” says the AI ​​specialist. “We also use much less data, which saves energy.” Around a dozen customers now use NukkAI’s technology for logistical planning, including the French group Thales and the NATO defense alliance. NukkAI works closely with French universities, which give the company access to France’s supercomputer Jean Zay in Saclay. It has a computing speed of 36.85 petaflops per second, making it one of the most powerful in Europe. One petaflop corresponds to 1000 trillion (one quadrillion) calculation operations per second.

France and Europe will need more and better supercomputers of this kind in the future, says Christine Dugoin, associate professor and researcher at the AI ​​Observatory at the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. “This is the only way we will be able to keep up in the AI ​​sector,” she tells DW. Additional mega-computers are also planned: this year and next year, Europe’s first two supercomputers will be installed in Jülich in North Rhine-Westphalia and in the Essonne department near Paris, each with a speed of more than one exaflop, i.e. one trillion calculation operations per second.

“However, the Americans are still ahead of us and are likely to be overtaken by the Chinese, who claim their new Tianhe 3 supercomputer has a peak capacity of more than two exaflops, which would make it the most powerful in the world,” she says. European cooperation is not only important in view of this competition. “Since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, Moscow has been running a disinformation campaign against Europe based on AI – we can only defend ourselves against this together,” demands Dugoin.

Defending Europe’s democratic values ​​is the goal of the European unicorn Helsing. The defense company, based in France, Germany and Great Britain, was founded in 2021, but the Ukraine war confirmed that the founders had the right intuition, Antoine Bordes, Helsing’s vice president of AI, told DW. “Europe and Western democracies face an existential risk. We must build shared technological and defense sovereignty – AI will be crucial to this,” he says.

For example, Helsing’s AI processes satellite or radar data in combat zones in real time so that it is available to armies on land, in the air or on the water, including in Ukraine. “The cross-border team is complementary: Germany has a strong industrial culture, while France stands out for its innovation,” says Bordes. But more needs to happen for Europe to have a chance of being on a par with the USA and China. “We need a Europe-wide AI investment plan, including in terms of computing capacity,” he demands.

Philippe Aghion also thinks that more government investment is needed. He is a professor of economics at the Paris universities INSEAD, Collège de France and the London School of Economics and co-author of an AI report commissioned by the French government. “This sector could generate 0.8 percent additional annual economic growth over the next ten years,” he told DW. “But for this France needs an industrial policy and must invest at least 25 billion euros.”

Researcher Greene also believes in the potential of AI. But he is not sure whether Europe will benefit from it to a great extent. “The US has a laissez-faire policy and sets as few hurdles as possible so that a competitive sector can develop. The EU, on the other hand, wants to become a champion of AI regulation in order to protect fundamental rights,” he explains.

A few days ago (May 21st), the EU countries finally passed the so-called AI law, which, among other things, prohibits the development of certain applications that are classified as dangerous. “But only if you have your own products can you decide how they can be used in autocratic systems,” says Greene.

But for NukkAI’s Ventos, one factor in particular is key to the success of the French – and European – AI sector. “Instead of trying to compete with big players like Google, who are in a completely different league when it comes to data storage, we should focus on our own strengths – like AI combined with robotics in France,” she says.

Author: Lisa Louis (aus Paris)

*The article “Artificial intelligence: France reaches for the stars” is published by Deutsche Welle. Contact the person responsible here.