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Macron wants Europe to forget Facebook fears and embrace AI

(Bloomberg) -- Just as Facebook Inc. sparks outrage across much of the west with reports about its data sharing practices, Emmanuel Macron wants Europeans to relax about the use of their information.

The 40-year-old president is ramping up French efforts in the race to deploy artificial intelligence and he’s being held back by Europe’s culture of privacy. Reports that Facebook saw some 50 million U.S. profiles fed into election-campaign algorithms in 2016 are unlikely to help him make his case.

And that’s a problem for researchers trying to push back the frontiers of artificial intelligence: massive amounts of data are the raw material that their super computers use to learn. Without it, European scientists are fighting their rivals in the U.S. and China with one hand tied behind their backs.

“Accessing data -- that’s the number one challenge, the major hurdle,” said Cedric Villani, an internationally-renowned mathematician whom Macron tapped to lead his tech push.

The president emphasized the challenge facing Europe on a three-day visit to China in January where he witnessed the depth and scope of Chinese data collection. The European Union needs to “move fast’’ to create “a single market that our big data actors can access,” he said in Beijing. He said the EU must decide what model it wants to exploit data.

Macron aims to use France’s traditional excellence in math to position his country at the center of a European tech ecosystem to rival those in the U.S. and China.

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Emmanuel Macron, France's president, speaks to journalists as he arrives at a European Union (EU) leaders summit at the Europa Building in Brussels, Belgium, on Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017. Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

French Math Whiz

Villani was awarded the Fields Medal –- the Nobel prize of the math world – in 2010. And Paris’s elite schools are challenged only by Harvard and Princeton for the number of winners they’ve produced over the years. At the same time, Paris is gaining ground as a European hub for research: Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Facebook earlier this year pledged to hire staff and invest in labs.

Villani aims to pull those strands together with his A.I. strategy to be published as soon as next week. He says it will stress that people, companies and governments must share more data across Europe.

There are two main cultural barriers to greater sharing in Europe, he said in an interview: Europeans still see their markets are purely domestic; and data sharing is seen as giving up a competitive advantage. In France, 70 percent of people are concerned about personal data collected when they use Internet search engines, according to a December survey by the Digital Economy Association.

As a result, most of the traces individuals leave in medicals records, transport networks, education, or at work, as well as industrial data produced by chemical plants, energy generators or transport fleets, go untapped. They could help identify health risks or improve the traffic flow in cities but are either protected in silos or left in the hands of people without the skills to use them.

“Companies spent years building walls to protect their data, because they were told data is gold and it’s essential to protect it,” Olivier Lluansi, a partner at EY in France, said in an interview. “In A.I., the more data you share the stronger you grow, that’s quite the change in mindset.”

The Winner Decides

The trick, Villani said, is to get people to understand that sharing data doesn’t have to mean compromising on privacy.

The old continent will take a small step into the future next month when its General Data Protection Regulation comes into force. Villani says the rules represent an improvement in the privacy rules, but much more needs to be done if the EU is to compete at the forefront of global technological development.

He said if the rules are done correctly, data can and should be made anonymous and sharing can be done within a strict framework of privacy protection. But to ensure that happens, Europe may need to stay ahead of other jurisdictions that don’t have such concerns.

“If you lead the technology, you can decide what protection you’ll have. If you’re behind, you don’t get to decide,” said Andre Loesekrug-Pietri, an investor turned lobbyist who created the Joint European Disruptive Initiative to press France and Germany to set up a European research fund. “This is a massive test for European countries, and probably for our democratic systems, whether they want to stay relevant or not.’’