France is attempting to reposition itself as a globally competitive hub for artificial intelligence R&D, with significant state investment aiming to turn Paris into the next Palo Alto.

With rapid digitalization and the ever-increasing invasion of artificial intelligence (AI) into all aspects of modern life, France has found itself left behind in recent years. Many believe that France is already on the back foot, lacking the American data-gathering platforms of Google, Apple and Facebook or the innovative Chinese companies such as Tencent and Alibaba. While the French boast a strong reputation for engineers and scientists, the country is facing a brain drain, with talent emigrating abroad to pursue more unconstrained research at higher salaries.

Conscious of such a precarious situation, President Emmanuel Macron has been anxious to reverse the current trend and reposition France as a hub for AI research and development. Given the looming disruption AI will pose to long-standing business models, the President emphasized that France must shape the AI insurgency, rather than be subjected to it.

Macron went even further and declared that “France has all the means to become a champion of artificial intelligence in medicine” thanks to the country’s “Jacobin streak” – its tradition as a centralized republican state with the will and means to intervene to transform society. The French government will spend EUR 1.5 billion (USD 1.8 billion) over the next five years to encourage research in the field, promote start-ups, and develop data collection with the aim of turning Paris into Palo Alto. However, in context, Macron’s planned investments are dwarfed by the USD 20 and 30 billion spent by global tech giants in 2016 alone.

The man tasked with exploring France’s future AI potential is the highly eccentric mathematician and member of parliament, Cédric Villani. In a recent report entitled For a Meaningful Artificial Intelligence: Towards a French and European Strategy, Villani posited  that although “France has a great capacity in research in artificial intelligence, it is currently difficult to transform its scientific advances into industrial and economic applications.” French bureaucracy has traditionally stifled entrepreneurship and invention and the country lacks the cooperation between academia and industry which is so prevalent in the US.

Of the four priority areas for French AI development, the healthcare sector will be the cornerstone. AI innovation could revolutionize healthcare, with new treatment methods helping, (rather than replacing) doctors to improve diagnoses. For example, Google’s AI can detect cases of breast cancer on medical images with an efficiency of 89 percent, compared to 73 percent for specialists.

France has all the means to become a champion of artificial intelligence in medicine

Emmanuel Macron, President of France

The critical element to completely transforming the personalization of healthcare is data access. A recent study showed that AI could, with the right data, predict a patient’s response to treatments. A French start-up, Owkin, is trying to exploit medical data to determine the best treatment for a patient and potentially discover new drugs. As one of the first countries to have a national database of medico-administrative data, covering 99 percent of the population – a  centralized structure rivaled by only by that of China – France is well positioned for this task.

While AI poses great opportunities, it is not without its sceptics. There are ethical concerns that the personal data metamorphosizing healthcare could be sold to insurers and exploited. Moreover, algorithms used for diagnoses have been limited to “theoretical settings” rather than real-world clinical trials. Machine learning could present an invaluable tool in the future,