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.
After winning the Fields Medal, math’s highest honor, in 2010, for what his award citation called “proofs of nonlinear Landau damping and convergence to equilibrium for the Boltzmann equation,” he embraced a role that many other medalists have dreaded—that of mathematical ambassador, hopscotching from event to event and continent to continent, evangelizing for the discipline.
The fact that a mathematician could be considered, as he is, a “rock star” — or, better yet, “the Lady Gaga of mathematics” — says perhaps more about the French than Villani. Nonetheless, Villani, 44, has become a darling of President Emmanuel Macron’s young technocratic government, accompanying the president to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in November and Beijing in mid-January.
The government has piled the work on his desk, which is evidence, Villani says, of the need for people with scientific expertise in politics. But of all his projects — from math education to the future of New Caledonia to tax evasion — perhaps his most all-consuming mission is his task force on artificial intelligence and the highly anticipated report it’s set to release tomorrow. If successful, the report will help set the AI agenda in France and Europe for years to come.
“There is a deficit of contact between science and politics, it’s part of my job to reinforce that link. It will be France’s role to lead the rest of Europe.”, the 44-year-old said in an interview.
In view of a world where “artificial intelligence will be everywhere, like electricity,” as Villani has said, becoming a leader in the field is critical for France. Many feel that Europe is already at an enormous disadvantage compared to the US and China and will need to do some Usain Bolt-style sprinting to catch up. For one thing, France and Europe don’t have the data-gathering platforms necessary to fuel machine learning: they lack the power of what the acronym-loving French call GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon).
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.
I wear a three-piece suit, velvet cravat, pocket watch and brooch every single day, even if I am at home. I began to dress like this as an experiment when I was president of my university’s student union, but it soon stuck. People often think I am a poet or musician, so it is a nice conversation-starter. My body has adapted to it, and I even dress this way when I work in central Africa. The only times I do not are for sleeping and exercise, though I do little of the latter now I have given up competitive table tennis.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”