European tech industry calls on JEDI to fight off U.S., China

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(Bloomberg) -- In the global fight for future technologies, Europe risks falling behind.

That’s what a group of the region’s best minds -- dubbed JEDI -- is saying as Google, Apple, Facebook and China’s artificial intelligence companies forge ahead in the race for technological supremacy.

JEDI, or the Joint European Disruption Initiative, counts former Deutsche Telekom CEO Rene Obermann, France’s first female astronaut Claudie Haignere, the head of the country’s cybersecurity agency Guillaume Poupard and Wolfgang Wahlster, the chief of Germany’s Research Center for Artificial Intelligence DFKI, among its 117 members. And it’s calling for urgent government action.

“What matters is speed; speed in innovation, speed in execution, speed in smart regulation,” said Andre Loesekrug-Pietri, an investor who worked for a decade in China and lobbied to create the JEDI group in August. “Be the one that sets the speed and you will set the norms. If Europe doesn’t change its rhythm it will become irrelevant.”

The JEDI group is calling for the immediate setting up of a pan-European fund of 1 billion euros ($1.2 billion) for fundamental research projects, with a small, agile unit that takes just a couple months to decide on a project. The non-governmental group wants to model its efforts on the U.S. Department of Defense’s DARPA, or Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, which helped the creation of the computer mouse, an early version of an artificial-intelligence-powered robot as well as a precursor of the Internet.

Too Slow

While French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have made the right noises about the need for a greater European effort in disruptive technologies, industry leaders fear a lack of urgency in the region. Europe’s intricate corridors of powers, its bureaucracy and slow decision-making means it will be months before a JEDI-like operation can take shape, according to two officials in Macron’s office.

“All initiatives are good, but right now either projects are done on a national scale and are too small, or they are done at the EU level and decision-making is too slow,” Marwan Lahoud, a JEDI member and the vice-chairman of the French safety and biometrics company Idemia, said in an interview.

The EU’s Horizon 2020 innovation fund takes close to eight months to review a project before granting a euro and is not funding basic research for inventions that will set benchmarks in the decade ahead.

Macron’s Push

France has been vocal about its tech ambitions since Macron took office in May. It will unveil this week a plan to boost funding and support for the expansion of artificial intelligence under the direction of Cedric Villani, a winner of the Fields Medal -- the mathematics equivalent of a Nobel Prize -- and a member of parliament.

The president’s office pledges the AI strategy plan, to be unveiled Thursday, will show investment "comparable to South Korea or Finland" and that money will be taken from the general budget and from existing innovation funds to help the country’s tech ecosystem. The Elysee palace - which was briefing reporters Monday - admits that France missed much of the digital, Internet revolution but can play big on AI.

The tech-savvy Macron is aware of the trade threats and technological challenges facing Europe. At the end of a three-day visit to China in January, where he witnessed the Asian giant’s technological progress, the 40-year-old leader said the EU needs to “move fast.”

“We are not in the middle ages, we are in the global race,” he said, pledging to push for more research, including in AI.

But the pace with which Macron and Europe are moving is frustrating Loesekrug-Pietri. A multitude of agencies and committees means little gets done. It’s been more than six months since Macron talked about the need for a European agency to push disruptive innovation in his speech on the future of the continent.

Lost Competitiveness

And yet the French economy ministry is still “reflecting” on a national project it says “could be a first step towards an EU-wide agency dealing with disruptive innovations,” a senior official said.

The Elysee presidential palace says a separate project to get the EU’s executive arm to create a disruptive research initiative is in the works. Led from France by scientist and businessman, Bruno Sportisse, the project will aim to create a European fund by the end of 2018, said an aide to Macron.

Macron’s call for an EU agency last year prompted a tweet from the commissioner for research, science and innovation Carlos Moedas saying the Commission was already designing a European Innovation Council.

For the JEDI, the endless fumbling means lost long-term competitiveness.

In a one-page document sent to the French president in August, the group pressed for a DARPA-type fund focused on “major technological breakthroughs” or “moonshots” -- not ready-to-use or commercial innovations but the next generation of technology in fields such as biotech, energy, quantum computing, AI and cyber-security. No red tape, no commissions, no reports: the fund needs “maximum agility” for investments, it said.

“Technocrats tend to seek business cases,” said Lahoud. “But more often than not we don’t have business cases. We need to invest in low-maturity projects.”

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