While the world was swanking in Davos, yours truly was at a Tech Trends 2018 conference in Piccadilly, London. It was insightful actually—perhaps not up there with Davos—but intriguing nonetheless because the themes tallied with some of the rumblings were hearing in the media about Big Tech. It seems in this era of fake news, those FANG vendors are well and truly in the dog-house. Everyone at Davos lined up to tell them that too much power has shifted from the state into the private sector and even Google’s CEO agreed. From Mody to May to Macron, the world’s leaders took their aim...
The UK’s prime minister Teresa May, who looks like she is physically wilting under the pressure of Brexit, took to the stage and promised safety, ethics, and innovation in AI (she wanted to talk about so long as it wasn’t Brexit). Mrs. May wants the UK to be a leader in artificial intelligence and talked up the fact that “we have seen a new AI start-up created in the UK every week for the last three years.” What she, and others, may have missed is that the French have really started pressing the pedal to the floor with AI. We blogged last year about France’s Tech strategy taking shape, but the latest investments made by tech titans Google and Facebook demonstrate that the French vision is working and it’s starting to position France as a leader in AI.
In the last few weeks, Google revealed its plans to open a new AI centre in France. This centre will be its second in the European region after Zurich. Google intends to increase the number of staff in Paris by 50 per cent, with plans to bring its 700-person-strong office to over 1000 people within the next two years. And with a nod to the dark-arts of marketing and PR, the company plans to open four “Google Hubs” across the country designed to upskill and drive digital literacy into the French population. The first hub will open in Northern France and aims to train more than 100,000 people in its first year. It’s a shrewd move by Google because those pesky French regulators are beginning to bite; they’re leading the charge to ensure Big Tech pays its way: to pay tax based on local revenue. Google wants to be seen doing something right while the EU sorts out its tax regime.
Google’s announcement came as rival Facebook also stated that it would invest €10m in its French artificial intelligence centre over the next five years. For Facebook, this means doubling the number of AI scientists at its Paris research base to 60 and increasing the funding of Ph.D. candidates from 10 to 40. Not quite so impressive as Google but it is a market signal, and the tech titans aren’t alone either. Former tech rock stars SAP (the “Bono” of tech?) has pledged over €2 Billion for a raft of new Internet of Thing incubators and investments for start-ups as they try and leverage France’s thriving tech scene. These and other investments come at a time of growing momentum behind French efforts to establish a thriving tech innovation scene. If you want to see it, go and check out Station F that opened Paris last year. This former railway depot is now the world’s largest start-up campus and claims to be the “only start-up campus gathering a whole entrepreneurial ecosystem under one roof.” Maybe, for now. But my bet is other countries in Europe are starting to eye up France’s digital crown and are looking to swipe it. In 2018, I would like to investigate where in Europe the industries of the future will be built and how the region will build the future of work for its people. Please do get it touch if you want to learn more.
PS. One of the highlights for me from Davos has to be hearing India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. One quote from him summed up why this stuff matters and why the tech companies are beginning to change the way the work to head off future regulation: “Today, data is the world’s biggest asset. We are accumulating mountains and mountains of data. There is now a race to control data, because whoever is able to control the data can dominate the world.” I reiterate: There is a feeling that power has shifted too far into the private sphere and away from government control. It’s why Europe is looking to win back more control over big tech so we can expect more reguation in 2018. My last post detailed how Germany had put in place a Facebook Law. The “Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz” (Network Enforcement Law) gives the German government powers to fine any social-media platform with more than 2 million users if they allow “manifestly unlawful” posts up for more than 24 hours. Meanwhile the UK government, which has tried self-regulation, is ready with a more activist approach. The change in rhetoric from ministers is striking: Fake news, encryption/privacy, corporate tax and protecting gig workers are all moving into the regulators purview and will have huge impacts on all of us. And, I hate to say it, Brexit could well throw a kicker into the mix as the EU and the UK diverge on data processing. The EU doubles down on consumer data and how firms handle the torrents of data now generated by our homes and cars etc. while the UK doubles down on cyber-space, encryption and messaging. Fascinating times.