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Europe's AI champion sets sights on US tech giants

Europe's AI champion sets sights on US tech giants


Arthur Mensch, tall and thin with a shock of shaggy hair, arrived last month for a speech at a sprawling Paris tech center, dressed in jeans and wearing a bicycle helmet. He had the modest air of the person European officials are counting on to help propel the region into a high-stakes matchup with the United States and China over artificial intelligence.

Mr. Mensch, 31, is the chief executive and one of the founders of Mistral, considered by many to be one of the most promising challengers to OpenAI and Google. You have become the poster child for AI in France, Matt Clifford, a British investor, told him on stage.

Much depends on Mr. Mensch, whose company rose to fame just a year after he founded it in Paris with two college friends. As Europe struggles to gain a foothold in the AI ​​revolution, the French government has named Mistral as its best hope for creating a standard-bearer and has lobbied European Union policymakers to They help ensure the success of the company.

Artificial intelligence will rapidly integrate into the global economy over the coming decade, and European policymakers and business leaders fear that growth and competitiveness will suffer if the region does not follow suit. pace. Behind their concerns is the belief that AI should not be dominated by tech giants, like Microsoft and Google, who could forge global standards at odds with the culture and politics of other countries. At issue is which models of artificial intelligence will ultimately influence the world and how they should be regulated.

The problem with the lack of a European champion is that the road map is set by the United States, said Mr. Mensch, who just 18 months ago worked as an engineer at Google's DeepMind lab in Paris, where he was building AI models. Its co-founders, Timothe Lacroix and Guillaume Lampe, also in their 30s, held similar positions at Meta.

In an interview in the spartan, whitewashed offices of the Mistral, facing the Canal Saint-Martin in Paris, Mr. Mensch said it was not prudent to trust American tech giants to set the rules basis of a powerful new technology that would affect millions of lives.

We cannot have strategic dependence, he said. This is why we want to make a European champion.

Europe has struggled to produce meaningful technology companies since the dot-com boom. While the United States created Google, Meta and Amazon, and China produced Alibaba, Huawei and TikTok owner ByteDance, Europe's digital economy has failed to deliver on its promises, according to a report from the French Commission on Artificial Intelligence. The 15-member committee, including Mr Mensch, warned that Europe was lagging behind in AI, but said it had the potential to take the lead.

Mistral's generative AI technology enables businesses to launch chatbots, search functions and other AI-based products. She surprised many by building a model that rivals the technology developed at OpenAI, the American start-up that sparked the AI ​​boom in 2022 with the ChatGPT chatbot. Named after a powerful wind in France, Mistral quickly gained traction by developing a more flexible and cost-effective machine learning tool. Some major European companies are starting to use its technology, including Renault, the French auto giant, and BNP Paribas, the financial services company.

The French government gives Mistral its full support. President Emmanuel Macron called the company an example of French genius and invited Mr. Mensch to dinner at the presidential palace in Lyse. Bruno Le Maire, French Minister of Finance, is full of praise for the company, while Cédric O, former French Minister of Digital Affairs, is an advisor to Mistral and holds shares in the start-up.

The support from the French government is a sign of the growing importance of AI. The United States, France, Britain, China, Saudi Arabia and many other countries are trying to strengthen their national capabilities, sparking a technological arms race that is influencing trade and foreign policy, as well as global supply chains.

Mistral has become the most serious European competitor in the global battle. Yet many people wonder whether the company will be able to compete with its major American and Chinese competitors and develop a sustainable business model. In addition to the considerable technological challenges of building a successful AI business, the computing power required is extremely expensive. (France says its cheap nuclear power can meet energy demand.)

OpenAI raised $13 billion and Anthropic, another San Francisco company, raised more than $7.3 billion. Mistral has so far raised about 500 million euros, or $540 million, and generates several million in recurring revenue, Mr. Mensch said. But in a sign of Mistral's promise, Microsoft took a small stake in February, and Salesforce and chipmaker Nvidia backed the startup.

This could be one of the best plans we have in Europe, said Jeannette zu Frstenberg, chief executive of General Catalyst and founding partner of La Famiglia, two venture capital firms that invested in Mistral. Basically, you have a very powerful technology that will unlock value.

Mistral subscribes to the idea that AI software should be open source, meaning that programming codes should be available for anyone to copy, modify or reuse. Proponents say allowing other researchers to see the code will make systems more secure and fuel economic growth by accelerating its use by businesses and governments for applications such as accounting, customer service and data searches. data base. This week, Mistral put the latest version of its model online that anyone can download.

OpenAI and Anthropic, on the other hand, keep their platforms closed. Open source is dangerous, they argue, because it can be exploited for malicious purposes, such as spreading disinformation or even creating destructive AI-powered weapons.

Mr. Mensch dismissed concerns such as the narrative of an alarmist lobby including Google, Microsoft and Amazon, which he said were seeking to consolidate their dominance by persuading policymakers to adopt rules that would crush their rivals.

The biggest risk of AI, Mr. Mensch added, is that it will spark a revolution in the workplace, eliminating some jobs while creating new ones that will require reskilling. It will come faster than in previous revolutions, he said, not in 10 years but rather in two years.

Mr Mensch, who grew up in a family of scientists, said he was fascinated by computers from a young age and learned to program when he was 11. He played video games avidly until the age of 15, when he decided he could do better things with his time. After graduating from two elite French universities, École Polytechnique and École Normale Supérieure, he became a university researcher in 2020 at the prestigious Center National de la Recherche Scientifique de France. But he quickly turned to DeepMind, an AI lab acquired by Google, to learn more about the industry and become an entrepreneur.

When ChatGPT hit the scene in 2022, Mr. Mensch teamed up with his university friends, who decided they could do the same thing, or better, in France. In the company's airy workspace, a group of sneaker-clad scientists and programmers are now busily tapping away at keyboards, coding and populating digital texts culled from the Internet as well as sections of 19th-century French literature. , which is no longer subject to copyright law. in the large linguistic model of the company.

Mr. Mensch said he felt uncomfortable with Silicon Valley's very religious fascination with the concept of artificial general intelligence, to the point where, according to technology leaders like Elon Musk and Sam Altman, Computers will surpass the cognitive abilities of humans, with potentially disastrous consequences.

All of AGI's rhetoric is about God's creation, he said. I do not believe in God. I am a convinced atheist. So I don't believe in AGI

A more imminent threat, he says, is that American AI giants pose to cultures around the world.

These models produce content and shape our cultural understanding of the world, Mensch said. And it turns out that France's values ​​and those of the United States differ in subtle but important ways.

With his growing influence, Mr. Mensch has stepped up his calls for lighter regulation, warning that restrictions would hurt innovation. Last fall, France successfully lobbied Brussels to limit regulation of open source AI systems in the European Union's new artificial intelligence law, a victory that helps Mistral maintain a pace of rapid development.

If Mistral becomes a major technical power, said Mr O, the former digital minister who led the lobbying, it will be beneficial for all of Europe.




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