Focus On AI

How A New Entity Aims To Help Europe Gain AI Sovereignty

Aleia, a new umbrella organization that will federate the best European AI startups into a single centralized unit and present their offerings as a one-stop-shop for corporate clients, launched on February 3 with financial support from an arm of the French government and several angel investors. The aim is to ensure Europe’s technology sovereignty, increase its competitiveness, and make it easier for large corporates to move from proof-of-concept trials to scaling artificial intelligence across their organizations.

The launch event at Aleia’s headquarters in Paris’ 8th arrondissement, included Renaud Vedel, the head of France’s national AI strategy, two former members of the EU’s High Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence, the CEOs of several startups and the head of France’s new Cyber Campus, a cybersecurity initiative from French President Emmanuel Macron, which will open its doors this month.  The event was moderated by Jennifer L. Schenker, The Innovator’s editor-in-chief.

The €8 million in financing will help Aleia, which is now officially part of France’s national AI strategy, accelerate its development ahead of its commercial launch in June of this year.

The French government’s backing of Aleia is part of a trend. At a time when there is growing mistrust in the handling of data by U.S. and Chinese actors, there is a growing desire in Europe to reduce  dependence on foreign technology. The lack of European Cloud services has received much attention and the European Commission’s February 2020 proposals on data and AI stressed the importance of industrial data as a resource that -if leveraged – could give Europe an edge. The notion of sovereignty also intersects with the long-time European concerns about privacy and personal data. Some believe there is an opportunity for Europe to differentiate itself with a brand of AI that is more human-centric, transparent, and trustworthy, incorporating European values, such as data privacy, that could serve as an alternative to American and Chinese offers.

If Europe plays its cards right and develops and diffuses AI it could add some $2.7 trillion, or 19% to its economic output by 2030, according to a report by the World Economic Forum and McKinsey. At stake is not just the competitiveness of nations but the viability of Europe’s largest companies.

Today the uptake of AI by both business and government in Europe is still limited. Many attempts never get beyond proof-of-concept trials. Aleia aims to change that by ensuring that governments and companies have the right data and the right tools to fully leverage the power of AI, says Antoine Couret, Aleia’s CEO. Its ambition is to offer a platform for development that unifies, secures, and industrializes the whole data and AI production chain, from ideation to scaling it across the enterprise. “Think of it as a fast track to AI, both in terms of business impact and tech simplicity” he says.

Europe does not have its own version of an Amazon Web Service, Google or Alibaba. What it does have is best-of-breed startups in different areas of AI, says AI expert Francoise Soulié, a speaker at the launch event. Europe’s AI companies are still relatively small, and their offers are niche, so they struggle to get contracts with big companies or public administrations, she says. By grouping them together on one platform it will be easier for them to compete against offers from foreign tech giants, says Soulié, who is a scientific advisor to France AI, a former member of the European Commission’s High Level AI Experts group, and co-chair of the innovation and commercialization working group of Global Partnership on AI, a global multi-stakeholder initiative which aims to bridge the gap between theory and practice on AI by supporting cutting-edge research and applied activities.

Aleia’s ecosystem of startups includes QWAM Control Intelligence, which specializes in  analytics and exploitation of textual data and documents with semantics, AI, and Big Data natural language processing; computer vision expert XXII; Cliris, which uses Machine Learning and Big Data to analyze crowds; Linkurious, which analyzes social graphs; Le Voice Lab, which specializes in analyzing voice; Adobis Group, a specialist in data virtsualization, and Cosmian, which secures Cloud-native apps with advanced cryptography. All of the initial startups are French but Aleia plans to add startups from other European countries.

Startups’ offerings will be integrated into the Aleia marketplace, which is powered by France’s Dawex Data Exchange Platform, a white-label SaaS platform to distribute, source, commercialize and/or orchestrate data ecosystems.

 Quam CEO Christian Langevin, a speaker at the launch event, explained how the capacity to process text data at scale is particularly important to the public sector. He said it is difficult for small tech companies to scale due to the risk adverse attitudes of public sector purchasing departments and said this was a driving factor in QWAM’s decision to join the Aleia ecosystem.

Data sharing is another main objective for Aleia. The design of Aleia’s platform will give companies and governments the opportunity to share and exchange data in a controlled manner with the goal of assembling enough data to train algorithms, says Couret.

“The adoption of AI is constrained for many companies, and most notably for the smallest, by a lack of data, the basic material of digital transformation,” he says. “Only by pooling the data of private and/or public organizations can we attain the critical amount needed to accelerate the training of algorithms.”

In addition, “data used by AI is now multi-faceted, with text, images, videos, speech or graph data, so that a one stop shop is needed where one can come and find all the tools to analyze the data and rapidly develop and deploy his or her application,” Soulié says.

The take-up of AI in the public sector for applications like health and the willingness to share public data with private entities is constrained by privacy concerns, says Vedel. This may change later this year after Europe passes the EU Data Governance Act, which is intended to foster the availability of data by increasing trust in data intermediaries and strengthening data sharing across the EU and between sectors. The law will introduce new data governance, in line with EU rules on personal data protection, consumer protection and competition law, as part of the European Strategy for Data. 

We need companies to be confident about exchanging data and not to be afraid of privacy regulationa,” says Couret. We need to rethink regulation based on a new balance between privacy and efficiency.”

There is another serious issue that needs to be resolved if Europe is going to become an AI leader. Soulié points out that every time a large French or European company awards a contract to an American Cloud provider, European data is being used to improve American AI tools. Most of European data is currently being processed by American tech companies. European AI tools will never be as good or surpass those of the U.S. if they don’t train on massive amounts of data, she says.

The global AI race is largely seen as being between the U.S. and China. Europe is a distant third. If European governments want the region to catch-up large companies need to work more closely with European startups, says Laurent Lafaye, Co-CEO of Dawex, a speaker at the Feb. 3 launch event. He suggested, during a round table, that the French government, which holds stakes in some of France’s biggest companies, should exert pressure on those companies to allocate a portion of their existing R &D budget to working with local AI startups.

 Aleia, which currently has around 30 collaborators and expects to triple that number by the end of this year, is actively courting some of France’s largest companies as potential clients.

The pitch is that all data will be hosted on European soil, either with a provider like France’s OVH or within a corporate’s own network, and all processing of data and algorithms will be done using either open source or European software tools, meaning it will not be subjected to the CLOUD Act, which allows federal law enforcement to compel U.S.-based technology companies via warrant or subpoena to provide requested data stored on servers regardless of whether the data are stored in the U.S. or on foreign soil. The offer will include four building blocks: AI Lake, for importing and transforming data; AI Factory to simplify and accelerate the construction of data sets, algorithms, and AI tools; AI Run for deploying, integrating and supervising artificial intelligence applications; and AI Admin for managing the governance of data, APIs and the infrastructure in a sovereign environment.

Big Ambitions

Aleia is well plugged into the French and European AI ecosystems. It is a member of Hub France AI, which regroups the French AI ecosystem. (Couret is president of both Aleia and Hub France AI)  It is also a member of the European Alliance on Applied AI and of Gaia-X, a pan-European project that aims to be “a decentralized, secure, transparent digital ecosystem for the European data economy, allowing digital services and data to be shared by any public or private institution without sacrificing data protection and privacy.”

The Cyber Campus will also be part of the Aleia ecosystem. Cybersecurity and AI are intertwined because Europe’s sovereign AI offerings must be secure, says Yann Bonnet, managing director of The Cyber Campus and a former member of the EU’s High Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence. Over a hundred entities, including large corporates, public agencies, research organizations, startups and organizations are already involved in the campus. Most participants are French, but the ambition is to connect to other cybersecurity hubs across Europe, Bonnet says. Part of The Cyber Campus’ mission is promoting the sharing of data to reinforce the capacity of public and private entities to handle cyber risks. Among other things, it aims to create a cyber commons studio to share resources and develop sovereign solutions to respond to threats.

Deja Vu

The French state’s support of sovereign tech projects is not new. For example, as part of Project Andromède, which was announced in 2011 as a governmental desire for French-controlled cloud computing, the French state financed two cloud companies: Cloudwatt, which was formed by Orange and Thales, and Numergy, created by SFR and Bull, in the hopes that they could serve as national alternatives to Amazon, Microsoft and Google. The state divested its stakes in 2016. Numergy was absorbed into telecommunications company SFR and Cloudwatt shut down in 2020.

The French government is also one of the investors in Qwant, a French search engine that safeguards data by keeping it on European soil and respecting user privacy. The company, which presents itself as an alternative to Google, is facing some financial difficulties. According to a story in Politico in June of last year Qwant requested an €8 million loan from Huawei, raising concerns that the Chinese telecom equipment vendor, which has been accused by the U.S. government of espionage, could potentially gain visibility or influence on Qwant’s strategy.

Meanwhile, GAIA-X, which was formed at the behest of the German and French governments, has found itself surrounded by controversy. French cloud provider Scaleway announced in November that  it would back out of the project and not renew its membership, citing foreign tech company influence as one of the reasons for its departure.

A Different Trajectory

Aleia is on a different trajectory, says Couret. It is a fully private company, with a business and tech focus, and most importantly, is led by an ecosystem of entrepreneurs. He says he is confident that Aleia can make a strong contribution to developing sovereign AI in France and in Europe by promoting data sharing and harnessing the power of Europe’s best AI startups and its ecosystem. “Based on the wealth of deep tech companies in Europe, Europe deserves tohave its own AI offer and it must be created at a European level,” he says.

This article is content that would normally only be available to subscribers. Sign up for a four-week free trial to see what you have been missing 

To access more of The Innovator’s Focus On AI articles click here.

About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.