The EU can play a big role in boosting European AI

Artificial intelligence has been confined to the lab for so long that it is hard sometimes to recognise that it is now an actual technology that we use without thinking. From route finding apps to online translations to the algorithms that detect skin cancers by looking at images, AI is all around. And it could now take off in a big way: a recent report from Kantar Media on the 2019 outlook for media claims that AI will finally bridge the return-on-investment divide. Forecasts like these demonstrate the transformational power of AI for professions as varied as tax law, medical research, art and engineering.

No surprise then that Europe is responding to the challenge. The European Union can never match the spending power of the US or China, but if it brings coherence to its own and member states activities, it can have a big impact.

In December, the European Commission unveiled an AI plan developed with EU member states, Norway and Switzerland with provisions for a €4.4 billion partnership with industry for AI research (€3.2 billion in private contributions and the rest coming from the EU). The Commission also said it would provide a €100 million “scale-up fund” for start-ups working on AI and the blockchain verification technology that lies behind cryptocurrencies. And it is drafting ethical guidelines around AI transparency and accountability.

Public-private partnerships

The announcement is a follow-up to the Commission’s AI strategy published in April, which set a target of €20 billion for total public and private investments in AI by the end of 2020, and €20 billion per year for the decade after that. It describes AI as, “the main driver of economic and productivity growth and will contribute to the sustainability and viability of the industrial base in Europe,” and calls on each member state to present national AI strategies next year.

Andrus Ansip, the EU Commissioner for the Digital Single Market, said that under the plan, member states would coordinate investments. “We agreed to work together to pool data – the raw material for AI – in sectors such as healthcare to improve cancer diagnosis and treatment,” he said. “AI is not a nice-to-have, it is about our future.”

The EU has become increasingly vocal about the need for a greater EU effort in new technologies like AI. Germany’s national budget for 2019 sets aside €50 million in federal spending for AI, while in March, France announced €1.5 billion over four years.

But these national efforts are dwarfed by private investments in AI, which were between €2.4 billion and €3.2 billion in 2016, compared to almost €10 billion in Asia and €18 billion in the US. “Asia and North America are doing much better than we are doing here in Europe,” Ansip said. “

Europe also risks losing the talent race as tech companies swoop on European programmers, notably in computer science departments, and there are fears that technological know-how might be lured away. The Commission admits EU countries face shortages of ICT professionals and lacks AI-specialised higher education programmes, so its plan directs advanced degrees in AI through, for example, dedicated scholarships.

One new initiative aiming to give researchers a reason to stay is the European Lab for Learning and Intelligent Systems (Ellis), which is building an education programme for doctoral students studying machine learning. Amazon, Audi, Bayer, Siemens, and DeepMind, the London-based AI company owned by Google’s parent Alphabet, have all pledged to support Ellis.

A unique approach?

The Commission plan also underlines Europe’s “unique approach” to AI. It wants the technology to be ethical and secure, putting people at the centre of it, and using it to help solve the world’s biggest challenges such as climate change, safe transportation and cybersecurity. It is particularly keen on the healthcare applications: the Commission is working with member states to develop a common health database with anonymised scans of injuries, donated by patients, to improve cancer diagnoses and treatments with AI technology. It also wants to address concerns like what jobs AI technologies could replace, or who will be responsible if a wrong decision is taken by an AI-based system.

A High-Level Expert Group gathering academia, business, and civil society is currently working on ethics guidelines for AI development and use. The first draft of its ethics guidelines, released on December 18, set out how developers and users can ensure AI respects fundamental rights, applicable regulation and core principles. These will now be debated within the European AI Alliance. It is essential, as the EU should not overreach: promising that European AI will be good for all could backfire if the market develops in the opposite direction. The Expert Group needs to deliver useful tools that can help developers, sellers and buyers so that as the AI market develops, it builds trust and confidence and accelerates the market’s growth.

One way to help a trusted AI market to develop is to focus on it sector by sector. We examined some of these issues with our BrAInstorm survey earlier this year. We will examine next year how AI use is developing in sectors important for Europe’s future prosperity.

And then there is the question of whether legislation is needed. The Commission has so far remained cautious, saying the regulatory framework needs to be flexible enough to promote innovation while ensuring high levels of protection and safety.

How the EU can help

These policy developments all show how the EU at its best when it encourages member states to improve their own efforts and create mechanisms to both specialise and share. The best research is nearly always collaborative, and the EU’s cross-border networks have a great chance of nurturing AI.

A challenge with research generally and AI research specifically is to maximise its impact on Europe’s economy and society. That means it has to get out of the laboratory. The plans to involve SMEs more in the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme – which dedicates a significant part to AI – could be decisive.

All this shows a recognition that AI has the potential to improve products, processes and business models across the economy and society. “Like electricity in the past, AI is transforming the world,” EU Digital Economy and Society Commissioner Mariya Gabriel says. And as the EU takes more and more of a role in this area, businesses will need to adapt to the new settings.

In the movie ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’, the HAL computer malfunctions and is eventually disconnected. Many viewers in 1968 read the film as a cautionary tale about technologies like AI. However, half a century on, thanks to big data, cheap computing power and open source tools, we can see AI’s benefits. The EU is right to try to harness it, and to make Europe a leading player in AI development and deployment.

Author:John Higgins, BCW Brussels Senior Advisor for Digital Technology

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