Facebook has undermined democracies, elections, and the fabric of society from the U.S. and Britain to the Philippines and Myanmar. YouTube, owned by Google, has become a vector of extremism. Fake news, and the propaganda that exploits it, has become a toxic plague on public discourse. And privacy is quickly becoming a quaint, old-fashioned notion.
In the US, a laissez-faire approach to technological progress has opened the door for chaos and authoritarianism. In China, the drive to create a total surveillance state, powered by citizen data and its homegrown tech behemoths, is the lynchpin of public policy. Around the world people are beginning to wonder: is there an alternative? A “third way” to data privacy that puts citizens, not companies or parties, first?
The future is so ominous that we have been reading every sci-fi book we can find to divine what lies ahead for us. We recently finished Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which was published in 1953. It envisions a bleak, Orwellian future where books are outlawed and firemen burn the ones they find. It is a path none of us want to travel and we are always on the lookout for a radically-creative idea that can save us.
Enter French president Emmanuel Macron, who in March delivered his country, and the world, a bold new vision. The French government will spend 1.5 billion euro ($1.85 billion) over the next five years to invest in AI research, incentivize startups and competition, and create an alternative model for data production and governance that is based on the public interest. That means making algorithms more transparent, getting companies to share and pool their data, enabling data portability, and studying the future of work.
A small, nimble task force, led by the brilliant mathematician Cedric Villani, is overseeing the initiative. His team includes a machine learning researcher, an engineer with the defense ministry, and four members of a French digital technology advisory council, with expertise in everything from philosophy to law.
Europe’s sweeping new data protection rules go into effect this month. The goal is to catch up to the US and China and, as Nicholas Thompson of Wired declared, “to make sure the smartest minds in AI choose Paris over Palo Alto.” It’s also about making Europe’s data economy a beacon for the rest of the world.
“GDPR can be a competitive advantage for us,” one of Macron’s aides has said.
Politico offered a larger frame, putting Macron’s ambitions for France within a geopolitical context: “Europe wants to conquer the world all over again.”
Macron’s plan faces serious hurdles, especially in the short-term. Lacking its own stable of “homegrown champions”, France has a lot of catching up to do in terms of innovation. And even GDPR, which has Europe setting the standard for privacy protections worldwide, comes with significant flaws. It may, for example, inadvertently end up playing into the hands of the American tech giants it hopes to curb (see section 6).
But long-term, Macron’s policies could go a long way towards building a more sustainable data economy and, in turn, a more vital democracy (see WILTW February 8, 2018). Unlike some of his political rivals, Macron is just as concerned with the means as he is with the ends. He aims to create a “public laboratory” on the transformation of work and is described as “blockchain friendly.” He wants the government to collect data that can be used, and shared, by local engineers to develop AI, while incentivizing companies to make their algorithms less opaque.
If this means leveraging the force of consumer society, and empowering citizens to say, “I have to better understand your algorithm and be sure that’s trustworthy,” so be it. Without an open, collective debate about algorithmic bias, “people will eventually reject these innovations,” Macron told Wired.
Finally, Macron is raising ethical questions that leaders in the US and China are not. He wants to give citizens meaningful ownership and control over their data, and he’s not afraid to regulate. “I have to build a reciprocal or mutual trust coming from researchers, private players, startups, and my citizens,” Macron told Wired. “Does AI really seek to improve our well-being? If not, how can we make sure it does?”
This kind of interdisciplinary thinking, if put into practice, could make Europe’s approach to AI a valuable recruitment tool and global export. What Macron envisions is a bold new framework for the internet itself, one in which fresh solutions could potentially take root and flourish. Jaron Lanier says the internet must “move beyond free” if our species is to survive. Tim Berners-Lee, having grown deeply disillusioned with the internet he helped create, is backing a system that gives users the power to decide where their data resides and who is allowed to access it (see WILTW May 3, 2018). Others, aiming to topple the data feudalists, want to pay users for online browsing and uploading quality content. In the world Macron imagines, these models could potentially grow and thrive. Society, in turn, could too.
Highly-skilled workers may follow. For top AI talent hoping to serve something “greater” than Google’s advertising regime, or Xi Jinping’s communist party, a humanist AI model could be a powerful draw.
We quote Macron, speaking in an interview with Wired:
In the US, it is entirely driven by the private sector, large corporations, and some startups dealing with them. All the choices they will make are private choices that deal with collective values…On the other side, Chinese players collect a lot of data driven by a government whose principles and values are not ours.
If we want to defend our way to deal with privacy…the integrity of human beings and human DNA. If you want to manage your own choice of society, your choice of civilization, you have to be able to be an acting part of this AI revolution. I want to frame the discussion at a global scale.
The key driver should not only be technological progress, but human progress…I mean, Europe is the place where the DNA of democracy was shaped, and therefore I think Europe has to get to grips with what could become a big challenge for democracies…
[AI] could totally dismantle our national cohesion and the way we live together. This leads me to the conclusion that this huge technological revolution is in fact a political revolution.
Macron is not out to build a "European Google". Instead, he wants to leverage an advantage that France already has: giant state-run agencies and massive troves of centrally collected public and private data. Medical-records amassed by France’s state-run hospitals, for example, are a data goldmine that is already propelling AI-powered tumor detection technology, one aide told Politico.
“Paradoxically, the fact of having a big centralized state and vast public records is an advantage in this area, because you can organize the data as you see fit,” the aide said. Explained this way, Macron’s approach to AI seems to hybridize the best of the US and China, with a European twist: a “totally federalized” approach to data that puts personal freedoms first.
In addition to healthcare, the plan targets three other sectors where “France and Europe excel” on the global level. Those sectors, all of which have “sufficient maturity” and “require strong public leadership to trigger the transformations”, are transportation, defense and security, and the environment. In his public remarks, Macron has said he’s especially focused on the field of mobility and autonomous vehicles.
Critics make the point that government standards are not enough. That without an ecosystem of domestic champions, Macron’s government will struggle to get powerful foreign companies to comply with its local market. As Nicolas Colin of FT noted: “Beijing can be inflexible with Facebook because locals can rely on WeChat, the Chinese alternative to the west’s social networking platforms.” Another criticism is that Macron’s vision relies too much on the “old tradition of French industrial policy: everything aimed at university-led research [and] lots of public money going to incumbents.”
A third hurdle is immigration. Between the chaos of Brexit and President Trump, the stage is set for Amsterdam, Paris, and Berlin to become the next global magnets for engineers, coders, and startups. But with populist movements roiling the continent and making it harder for politicians to be more tolerant of foreign workers, the “windfall” has been slow to happen.
And yet there may be cracks in Colin’s critique. As the backlash against Big Tech accelerates, a system designed around security, trust, and giving users the ability to control and monetize their share of the data economy through blockchain technologies could be a truly competitive model. Europe may not have a Facebook, or a WeChat, that it wants to export globally. But data companies and governments that want to do business in Europe will have to comply with GDPR, or risk being left out in the cold. Macron seems firm on this point. He has said that Google and Facebook are “welcome” in France, but not at the expense of “European sovereignty in AI” or the rights and privacy of French citizens. And not if they don’t pay their share of taxes. As the backlash against big brother accelerates, Macron may find he has the leverage to push his vision through. The future of societies depends on it.