France puts healthcare at heart of $1.8B AI strategy

While French President Emmanuel Macron recognizes the downsides of making data more widely available, he has committed to taking France down that route. (elysee.fr)

French President Emmanuel Macron has committed to investing $1.8 billion in artificial intelligence over the next four years. The spending plan will target the healthcare sector and is accompanied by a commitment to open up French data. 

Macron discussed the strategy following the release of a report (PDF) from a fellow French politician that sketched out an AI strategy for France and Europe. The report called for France to make health a cornerstone of its AI policy. Macron echoed the position in an interview with WiRED, in which he said healthcare is the field that drove home the potential of AI to him.

“You can totally transform medical care making it much more predictive and personalized if you get access to a lot of data,” Macron said.

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Macron sees a cost to taking that route, though. The French leader knows AI needs patient data if it is to transform healthcare. But the same data that improve preventative care and treatments can also be used by insurers to predict a patient’s medical risk or otherwise exploited for commercial gain without improving lives. Macron framed this as a major threat to France.

“The day we start to make such business out of this data is when a huge opportunity becomes a huge risk. It 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 said.

Yet, while Macron recognizes the downsides of making data more widely available, he has committed to taking France down that route. The decision reflects Macron’s belief that, done properly, opening up data will be a net gain for the French economy and the lives of its citizens. 

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The other driver of Macron’s thinking is more nebulous but potentially more far reaching. With the U.S. largely leaving the private sector to define how data are collected and used, and the state playing a big role in how China approaches the topic, Macron sees Europe offering a different take on the values and goals of AI.

“The key driver should not only be technological progress, but human progress. This is a huge issue. I do believe that Europe is a place where we are able to assert collective preferences and articulate them with universal values,” Macron said.

In practice, that means France will push for greater openness from the companies that develop AI. Citing the example of an algorithm that organizes student access to higher education, Macron said it is important that people can see how the machine makes decisions so they are confident is is free from bias. To that end, companies will need to make their algorithms open to access French funds. 

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