Google, Facebook target Paris as a center for AI expansion

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(Bloomberg) -- Paris is gaining ground as a European hub for artificial intelligence research as Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Facebook Inc. pledge to hire staff and invest in labs, after their top executives met with French President Emmanuel Macron.

Google said it will create an AI lab dedicated to fundamental research on themes like automatic learning, language and a computer’s ability to see, with the aim of applying findings to fields from health to the environment. The end-goal is to grow this group to a size similar to Google’s existing team of 120 engineers who do applied research in Paris, working on developments for Chrome and YouTube, a company spokeswoman said.

Facebook, which already has an artificial intelligence lab in Paris, said it will double the team there to 100 people by 2022 and spend 10 million euros ($12.2 million) on items including hardware equipment. Both announcements came as part of a broader series of promises by these companies to increase budgets in France, with Google and Facebook also separately vowing to train citizens on digital tools.

“France has all the assets to succeed. It has top engineers, great entrepreneurs, one of the best education systems in the world, great infrastructure, and successful global companies,” Google Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai wrote in a blog post. He reaffirmed a broader hiring target to reach 1,000 employees at Google’s headquarters in the French capital, from 700 today.

Pichai and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg are guests of Macron’s on Monday, among 140 top executives from a variety of industries. In Versailles, company chiefs were invited to attend presentations by ministers, as well as private meetings and dinner with the president -- a full-fledged investor roadshow meant to convince CEOs to invest more in France, as they prepare to head to Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum.

SAP SE CEO Bill McDermott is also on the guest list. Europe’s biggest software company said it will invest 2 billion euros over five years in France on research and development, as well as backing and acquiring startups.

SAP also announced Monday it’s buying a French company called Recast.AI that specializes in artificial intelligence. Recast.AI, which develops conversational chatbots, will be part of SAP’s efforts to add voice recognition to its products.

Macron’s strategy to woo investors and bring more funds to the French ecosystem dates back before his days as president, and tech has always been at the core of it. When he was still economy minister two years ago, Macron used the grandeur of Versailles to try and convince technology-focused venture-capitalists, including Andreessen Horowitz and Accel Partners, that France is a good place for their money.

The French president has also expressed the goal of establishing France and Europe as leaders in global artificial intelligence innovation, to rival the U.S. and China. France is waiting for a report by member of Parliament, Cedric Villani, expected soon, before it unveils a national strategy on AI.

Still, Macron has toughened his stance on technology companies in recent months on issues like taxes. He brought it up with Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook during a meeting at the French presidential palace in September.

Taxation of tech companies will be part of talks in Versailles Monday, but they’re not the reason for Macron’s meetings with Pichai, Sandberg and others, according to an official at the president’s office.

The dinner will be held at the Gallery of Great Battles in the Versailles Palace, where Macron hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin last year. Catering will include meals imagined by Michelin-starred chef Alain Ducasse.

--With assistance from Stefan Nicola

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