French President Emmanuel Macron recently endorsed a national AI strategy that includes plans for the French state to make public and private sector datasets available for reuse by others in applications of artificial intelligence (AI) that serve the public interest, such as for healthcare or environmental protection. Although this strategy fails to set out how the French government should promote widespread use of AI throughout the economy, it will nevertheless give a boost to AI in some areas, particularly public services. Furthermore, the plan for promoting the wider reuse of datasets, particularly in areas where the government already calls most of the shots, is a practical idea that other countries should consider as they develop their own comprehensive AI strategies.
The French strategy, drafted by mathematician and Member of Parliament Cédric Villani, calls for legislation to mandate repurposing both public and private sector data, including personal data, to enable public-interest uses of AI by government or others, depending on the sensitivity of the data. For example, public health services could use data generated by Internet of Things (IoT) devices to help doctors better treat and diagnose patients. Researchers could use data captured by motorway CCTV to train driverless cars. Energy distributors could manage peaks and troughs in demand using data from smart meters.
Repurposed data held by private companies could be made publicly available, shared with other companies, or processed securely by the public sector, depending on the extent to which sharing the data presents privacy risks or undermines competition. The report suggests that the government would not require companies to share data publicly when doing so would impact legitimate business interests, nor would it require that any personal data be made public. Instead, Dr. Villani argues that, if wider data sharing would do unreasonable damage to a company’s commercial interests, it may be appropriate to only give public authorities access to the data. But where the stakes are lower, companies could be required to share the data more widely, to maximize reuse. Villani rightly argues that it is virtually impossible to come up with generalizable rules for how data should be shared that would work across all sectors. Instead, he argues for a sector-specific approach to determining how and when data should be shared.
After making the case for state-mandated repurposing of data, the report goes on to highlight four key sectors as priorities: health, transport, the environment, and defense. Since these all have clear implications for the public interest, France can create national laws authorizing extensive repurposing of personal data without violating the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which allows national laws that permit the repurposing of personal data where it serves the public interest. The French strategy is the first clear effort by an EU member state to proactively use this clause in aid of national efforts to bolster AI.
However, the strategy primarily focuses on repurposing data in the public interest because the GDPR limits repurposing data for commercial purposes. But many important uses of AI—from banking to agriculture—are commercial. France is making the best of the situation created by the GDPR, but its limited strategy highlights the need for EU-level reform of data protection law in order to enable more ambitious AI strategies in the member states. Ultimately, unless the EU reforms the GDPR to enable greater collection, use, and sharing of personal data, any European country’s AI strategy will be constrained by the GDPR’s limitations.
Most of the economic gains from AI will come from deploying it in a wide diversity of industries. That diversity of applications will drive the development of new and better AI systems that will be in demand on global markets, which is what France needs to focus on if it wants to become a global leader in AI. While France’s new strategy will increase data-sharing, which will have positive effects, the focus on public services and public-interest use cases—though laudable in itself—is not sufficient to fulfill the strategy’s stated intention of establishing France as a global AI leader. That goal requires promoting much broader use of AI throughout the economy, including by working with other EU member states to reform data protection regulations that constrain AI. If France, the second most populous country in the EU, were to call for these reforms, other countries would take notice.
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