Swimming pool
Image Credit: Pixabay

Paris: Tax authorities in France are using artificial intelligence to find thousands of undeclared swimming pools, with a pilot programme now set to be rolled out across the country just as it grapples with its worst drought on record.

Some 20,356 undeclared pools have been discovered since officials began using software developed by Google and consulting firm Capgemini in October last year. The system uses AI to pick out the outlines of pools in aerial images, which are then cross-checked against official property databases.

It has so far netted close to $10 million in additional tax revenue from nine French regions and will now be “generalised” across France, tax officials announced Monday.

Pools are subject to taxes in France because they can add to a property’s value. Homeowners are meant to declare their swimming pool to the tax office within 90 days of its completion. Officials estimate that rolling out the AI system nationally could raise $40 million in new levies in 2023, according to local media reports.

There are an estimated 3.2 million private pools in France, according to the latest available data. Demand for pools increased during the coronavirus pandemic, as millions of people began working more from home, and continued through the summer as Europe sweltered through the some of the hottest temperatures on record.

The parched conditions have led environmentalists and agriculture groups to question whether new private pools should be banned, as safe drinking water is in short supply in some areas and crops are dying in the fields.

Some French villages are reliant on water deliveries trucked in from elsewhere, while farmers are warning of looming food shortages this winter.

“The challenge is not to ban swimming pools, it is to guarantee our vital water needs,” Julien Bayou, the national secretary of the centre-left Europe Ecology-the Greens party, wrote on Twitter last week after a television interview in which he wouldn’t rule out supporting such a ban in the event of repeated droughts.

His remarks on TV ignited backlash on social media. Some users pointed out that private pools were used by firefighters as a water reserve during wildfires this summer.

The sweltering heat and scant rain helped ignite an estimated 274 fires across France this year alone, according to data collected by the European Forest Fire Information System.

It isn’t the first time tax authorities have trained their attentions on backyard pools. During the Greek debt crisis a decade ago, tax authorities in Athens pored over satellite images and found nearly 17,000 private pools in the city; only 324 had been declared by their owners.

The artificial intelligence system deployed in France isn’t entirely without glitches - in some cases it apparently mistook solar panels for pools or failed to pick out structures that were concealed by trees.

Antoine Magnant, the deputy director general of public finances, said tax officials eventually hope to be able to use the system to uncover undeclared home extensions including verandas and pergolas.

“But we have to be sure that the software can find buildings with a large footprint and not the dog kennel or the children’s playhouse,” he told Le Parisien newspaper.