A Math Whiz Has Become a Crucial Political Figure in FranceBy and
Villani set to unveil France’s AI strategy on Thursday
Fields Medal winner is charged with pushing math education
To hear Cedric Villani tell it, the French are better than everyone else at love, wine -- and math.
A winner of the Fields Medal -- the Nobel Prize equivalent for mathematics -- Villani has in less than a year risen to become a key political figure in France with the ear of the tech-savvy President Emmanuel Macron. On Thursday, Villani takes center-stage when he unveils the country’s Artificial Intelligence strategy, aimed at putting his claim of France’s mathematical superiority to work in the global battle for emerging disruptive technologies.
“There is a deficit of contact between science and politics,” the 44-year-old said in an interview. “It’s part of my job to reinforce that link. It will be France’s role to lead the rest of Europe.”
Villani is an unlikely warrior in Europe’s AI battle, trying to take on China and the U.S. that are leaps ahead. The skinny scientist and lawmaker with his penchant for Gothic suits, giant frilly bow-ties favored in the late 19th century and bespoke spider-shaped brooches often draws more attention for the way he looks than for what he has to say.
Yet Macron is relying on Villani to help his modernization push by being one of the new -- more optimistic -- faces of France, a role the scientist has embraced with gusto. His 150-page AI report comes on top of the work he’s done on crafting a new and better way of teaching math in the country and as he prepares his next project that will involve reviewing France’s pedagogical techniques and reflects on data privacy.
Next month he’ll travel with Macron to the U.S., after having visited China with him in January. He was among the key speakers at a pre-Davos gig organized by Macron at the Versailles Palace in January to show foreign investors, including Google Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai, that science was now at the core of France’s ambitions.
“Villani brings France’s policies up to a whole new level of knowledge and thinking, and it seems fair that he is given even more help to do his scaling up,” said Andre Loesekrug-Pietri, an investor who launched the Joint European Disruption Initiative with major European scientific figures to accelerate investment in fundamental research. He and Villani studied together at the top Paris school of Louis-Le-Grand.
Ever since Villani won the Fields medal in 2010, the soft-spoken math whiz has endeavored to make math a part of the conversation in France and to bring more science to politics. Mathematics has taken him from Paris’s prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure, to stints at Berkeley University and Princeton University and to the helm of the French capital’s Institut Henri Poincare, the world-renowned mathematical center.
His mathematics research fellow, Giuseppe Toscani of the University of Pavia in Italy, recalls Villani’s phenomenal ability to synthesize everything. The two men published research together in the late 1990s.
“He has the (almost unique) characteristic to be the best at anything he takes on,” Toscani said in a written response to questions. “Mathematics is one, among others. From that point of view, I am sure he will make important contributions in his new political life.”
Villani is part of Macron’s effort to change France’s political landscape, drawing into parliament people who are not professional politicians. The scientist has attempted to be more than just a new face. A fan of Marvel Comics’s Amazing Fantasy, Villani abides by the superhero’s mantra that “with great power comes great responsibility.”
France doesn’t have a Science Advisory Committee like in the U.S. The French prime minister is supposed to have a similar body, but Villani notes, “it hasn’t been used in a long, long time.”
Villani, who carries a pocket watch at all times and a giant, full and often half-open backpack, is a busy man. His aides talk about their boss’s extreme multi-tasking: he writes with one hand, types with the other all while speaking on the phone.
“I must do everything at the same time, that’s the difficulty,” Villani said.
The scientist is also contributing to a much-debated government plan to revise the constitution, which has taken him into uncharted and controversial waters. For the most part, though, he’s sticking to his real passion -- making France the place to be for math and science.
In a June 2016 TED Talk about why his field of study is “so sexy,” Villani joked about French people’s reputation and added more seriously that Paris has more mathematicians than any other city in the world.
“What is it that French people do better than all the others? If you take a poll, the top three answers might be: love, wine and whining... Maybe. But let me suggest a fourth one: mathematics.”