The European “champion” of artificial intelligence is targeting the technology giants in the United States

Arthur Mensch, tall and thin with a mop of unkempt hair, arrived for a talk last month at a sprawling Paris technology center wearing jeans and carrying a bicycle helmet. He looked unassuming, as someone European officials are counting on to push the region into a high-stakes game with the United States and China over artificial intelligence.

Mensch, 31, is the CEO and founder of Mistral, considered by many to be one of the most promising challengers to OpenAI and Google. “You have become the symbol of artificial intelligence in France,” Matt Clifford, a British investor, told him on stage.

Much depends on Mr. Mensch, whose company shot to prominence just a year after he founded it in Paris with two college friends. As Europe races to gain a foothold in the AI ​​revolution, the French government has identified Mistral as its best hope for a standard-bearer and has been lobbying European Union politicians to help ensure the company's success .

Artificial intelligence will be rapidly integrated into the global economy over the next decade, and politicians and business leaders in Europe fear that growth and competitiveness will suffer if the region fails to keep pace. Behind their concerns is the belief that artificial intelligence should not be dominated by tech giants, such as Microsoft and Google, who could create global standards that conflict with the culture and politics of other countries. At stake is the larger question: which AI models will end up impacting the world and how they should be regulated.

“The problem with not having a European champion is that the road map is set by the United States,” said Mensch, who just 18 months ago was working as an engineer at Google's DeepMind lab in Paris, building artificial intelligence models. His co-founders, Timothée Lacroix and Guillaume Lample, also in their thirties, held similar roles to Meta.

In an interview at Mistral's spartan, whitewashed offices across from the Canal Saint-Martin in Paris, Mensch said it was “not safe to trust” U.S. tech giants to set the ground rules for a powerful new technology that would influence millions of lives.

“We cannot have a strategic dependence,” he said. “That's why we want to make a European champion.”

Europe has struggled to produce significant technology companies since the dot-com boom. While the US produced Google, Meta and Amazon, and China produced Alibaba, Huawei and ByteDance, which owns TikTok, Europe's digital economy has failed to deliver, according to a report from the French Artificial Intelligence Commission . The 15-member committee – including Mensch – warned that Europe was lagging behind on artificial intelligence, but said it had the potential to take the lead.

Mistral's generative AI technology enables companies to launch chatbots, search functions and other AI-powered products. It has surprised many by building a model that rivals technology developed by OpenAI, the US start-up that sparked the artificial intelligence 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 large European companies are starting to use its technology, including Renault, the French automotive 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 Mensch to dinner at the Elysée presidential palace. Bruno Le Maire, the country's finance minister, often praises the company, while Cédric O, France's former digital minister, is an advisor to Mistral and owns shares in the start-up.

The French government's support is a sign of the growing importance of artificial intelligence. The United States, France, Britain, China, Saudi Arabia and many other countries are seeking to strengthen their domestic capabilities, sparking a technological arms race that is affecting trade and foreign policy as well as global supply chains.

Mistral has emerged as the strongest European contender in the global battle. Yet many wonder whether the company can keep up with large American and Chinese competitors and develop a sustainable business model. In addition to the considerable technological challenges of building a successful AI company, the computing power required is incredibly expensive. (France says its low-cost nuclear power can meet energy demand.)

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

“This could be one of the best shots we have in Europe,” said Jeannette zu Fürstenberg, CEO of General Catalyst and founding partner of La Famiglia, two venture capital firms that invested in Mistral. “You basically have a very powerful technology that will unlock value.”

Mistral adheres to the idea that AI software should be open source, meaning that programming codes should be available to be copied, modified, or reused by anyone. Supporters say allowing other researchers to see the code will make systems more secure and fuel economic growth by accelerating their use among businesses and governments for applications such as accounting, customer service and database searches. This week, Mistral released the latest version of its model online for anyone to download.

OpenAI and Anthropic, by contrast, keep their platforms closed. Open source is dangerous, they argue, because it has the potential to be co-opted for evil purposes, such as spreading misinformation or even creating destructive AI-based weapons.

Mensch dismissed such concerns as the narrative of “an alarmist lobby” that includes Google, Microsoft and Amazon, which he said are trying to consolidate their dominance by persuading politicians to enact rules that crush rivals.

AI's biggest risk, Mensch added, is that it will spur a workplace revolution, eliminating some jobs and creating new ones that will require reskilling. “It will happen faster than in previous revolutions,” he said, “not in 10 years but more likely in two.”

Mr. Mensch, who grew up in a family of scientists, said he was fascinated by computers from a young age, learning 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 my time.” After graduating from two elite French universities, the École Polytechnique and the École Normale Supérieure, he became an academic researcher in 2020 at the prestigious French National Center for Scientific Research. But he soon turned to to DeepMind, an artificial intelligence lab acquired by Google, to learn about the industry and become an entrepreneur.

When ChatGPT came on the scene in 2022, Mr. Mensch teamed up with his university friends, who decided they could do the same or better in France. In the company's airy workspace, a group of sneaker-wearing scientists and programmers now busily tap keyboards, encoding and feeding digital text gleaned from the Internet, as well as reams of 19th-century French literature, which is no longer subject copyrighted. law – in the company's large linguistic model.

Mensch said he was uncomfortable with Silicon Valley's “very religious” fascination with the concept of artificial general intelligence, the point at which, according to technology leaders such as Elon Musk and Sam Altman, computers will surpass the cognitive abilities of humans , with potentially disastrous consequences. .

“All the AGI rhetoric is about God's creation,” he said. “I don't believe in God. I'm a convinced atheist. So I don't believe in AGI”

A more imminent threat, he said, is that posed by American artificial intelligence giants to cultures around the world.

“These models are producing content and shaping our cultural understanding of the world,” Mensch said. “And as it turns out, the values ​​of France and those of the United States differ in subtle but important ways.”

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

“If Mistral became a major technical power,” said O, the former digital minister who led the lobbying effort, “it would be beneficial for all of Europe.”

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