Inside mathematician Cédric Villani’s plan to make France an AI leader

22 Feb 2019

Cédric Villani. Image: J Barande/Ecole polytechnique/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Celebrated mathematician Cédric Villani has been tasked by the French government to create a national AI strategy.

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AI is a competitive field and various global regions are competing to be at the very edge of innovation in the space. French president Emmanuel Macron is keen for the country and Europe to be leaders in artificial intelligence (AI) and he has appointed mathematician Cédric Villani to lead the charge.

Discussing his role with Bloomberg, Villani explained: “There is a deficit of contact between science and politics. It’s part of my job to reinforce that link. It will be France’s role to lead the rest of Europe.”

An accomplished academic

Villani has a storied academic career, having taught at institutions such as Georgia Tech, the University of California Berkeley and Princeton University. In 2010, he received the Fields Medal for his work on Landau damping and the Boltzmann equation.

In a 150-page report published in 2018, the mathematician outlined a series of sectors to work on to secure a place for France as an AI leader: healthcare, security, transport and defence.

“These sectors are all crucial from a public interest standpoint, all require strong impetus from the state, and they can all be the focus of interest and ongoing involvement from public and private stakeholders,” Villani wrote.

Villani called for cooperation between public authorities to “introduce new ways of producing, sharing and governing data by making data a common good”, adding that in Europe, reforms underway to create open public data flows are crucial to the burgeoning AI ecosystem.

He noted that there must be more visibility created for domestic technology firms in France. “Large companies sometimes opt to rely on dominant world actors in the sector rather than entrusting their data to our homegrown talent, either because they are not aware of this wealth of skills within the country or because they prefer to adopt a very cautious approach.”

Environmental concerns

Climate change is another key area of Villani’s strategy and he called for the impact of AI on sustainable development goals to be considered, as well as how the technology can aid environmental causes.

Ethics in AI is also a major element, Villani noted. “Transparency is clearly key but, looking beyond this issue, it is also vital to facilitate audits of AI systems.

“This could involve the creation of a group of certified public experts who can conduct audits of algorithms and databases, and carry out testing using any methods required.

“These experts could be called on in the event of legal proceedings, during an investigation undertaken by an independent administrative authority or on request by the Defender of Rights (Défenseur des Droits).”

According to Wired, the French government is implementing about 95pc of his recommendations, but Villani said there is still a lot to do to make the lofty ambitions a reality. He said: “We’re currently very far from these goals. It’s going to take very voluntarist actions.”

A future in Parisian politics?

Alongside his role as an MP and AI adviser for Macron’s government, Villani has further political ambitions – he is running in the 2020 Paris mayoral election.

In an interview with Le Parisien, he said that the policy of the city’s current mayor, Anne Hidalgo, had “run out of steam”, describing a growing divide between central Paris and its suburbs.

For Villani, AI would also be a massive element of his mayoral strategy. He noted that using algorithmic solutions could pave the way for a streamlining of the city’s systems, including its traffic and parking issues, among other things.

Cédric Villani. Image: J Barande/Ecole polytechnique/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects