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Macron on how AI will shape the future, and threaten democracy

Photo: Sylvain Lefevre / Getty Images

In a fascinating interview with Wired's Nicholas Thompson, French president Emmanuel Macron explains why he is making big investments to bring France into the "winner takes all" race with the U.S. and China on artificial intelligence.

One key quote: "At some point, as citizens, people will say, 'I want to be sure that all of this personal data is not used against me, but used ethically, and that everything is monitored. I want to understand what is behind this algorithm that plays a role in my life.'”

Why he's all in on AI

  • The stakes are big: Macron says AI can jeopardize democracy and "totally dismantle our national cohesion and the way we live together." He cites health care as an example, saying medical records could be used to revolutionize care, or be abused by private companies.
  • It matters who wins: Macron says that on values like privacy, Europe differs from the other big players. His vision: "I want my country to be the place where this new perspective on AI is built, on the basis of interdisciplinarity: this means crossing maths, social sciences, technology, and philosophy."
  • You can't stop it: "Don’t block the change because it’s coming and people will accept it. But try to be at the fore-front of change to better understand it and deal with it. Change can destroy jobs in the very short run, but create new ones in other sectors at the same time."
  • Society could embrace AI, or reject it: "I have to be able to tell French citizens, 'OK, I encouraged this innovation because it will allow you to get access to new services, it will improve your lives—that’s a good innovation to you.' I have to guarantee there is no bias in terms of gender, age, or other individual characteristics, except if this is the one I decided on behalf of them or in front of them. If you don’t deal with it from the very beginning, if you don’t consider it is as important as developing innovation... people will eventually reject this innovation."

More key takeaways

  • Self-driving cars: Macron says it's "pure imagination" that autonomous vehicles will operate without drivers, saying that as in airplanes: "you will need people to make the critical choice at critical moments."
  • AI and warfare: Macron says he's "dead against" AI being used to kill, "Because I think you always need responsibility and assertion of responsibility."
  • What success looks like: "If I manage to develop a very strong, powerful ecosystem, number one in Europe on artificial intelligence dealing with mobility, defense, healthcare, fintech, etc. I think it will be a success. And for me, if a majority of people in France understand and endorse this change it will be a success."

On the U.S. tech giants

  • "Today [Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon] don’t pay all the taxes they should in Europe. So they don’t contribute to dealing with negative externalities they create. And they ask the sectors they disrupt to pay, because these guys, the old sectors pay VAT, corporate taxes and so on. That’s not sustainable."
  • "First, they have a very classical issue in a monopoly situation; they are huge players. At a point of time–but I think it will be a US problem, not a European problem–at a point of time, your government, your people, may say, “Wake up. They are too big.” Not just too big to fail, but too big to be governed. Which is brand new. So at this point, you may choose to dismantle."

Go deeper: Read the full interview.