Consolidating europe’s ai strategy

By Pilar DEL CASTILLO, MEP (EPP Group), Member of the ITRE Committee, Chair of the European Internet Forum

Looking at the increased amount of events and articles that have seen the light in the last months, Artificial Intelligence can be considered the latest hot digital topic.

To the extent that Big data, IoT, 5G, and now Artificial Intelligence seem to be at the top of the every public Institution agenda.

Nevertheless while I believe that research and institutional awareness has been undertaken for some time, the truth is that today AI has become an area of strategic importance and a key driver of economic development.

Indeed, Artificial Intelligence is not an entirely new concept, however due to the current massive sets of digital data around people and systems, together with today’s sophistication of processors, its potential to affect all sectors of the economy and society has never been bigger.

Its impact will be such that, as the rest of digital technologies, it must be seen as a layer across multiple sectors, rather than a sector in and of itself.

Its potential is enormous, significant benefits in terms of better healthcare, more efficient public administration, safer transport, or more competitive industry are easy to comprehend.

In this regard AI can be used to make more accurate and faster medical diagnoses, carry out dangerous and repetitive tasks and free up valuable time.

One example in figures, according to the Commission, by 2025 the economic impact of the automation of knowledge work, robots and autonomous vehicles will reach between €6.5 and €12 trillion annually.

From the European Institutions we are indeed very much aware of AIs importance and potential to the extent that, at the highest political level, the October 2017 European Council Conclusions have identified Artificial Intelligence as one of the main pillars of a strong digital economy.

With this context in mind the European Union’s strategy towards AI is consolidating at great speed.

The first tangible step in this direction has been the Commission’s increase of annual investments in AI by 70% under the research and innovation programme Horizon 2020, reaching 1.5 billion Euros for the period 2018-2020.

This increase means that at the end of the day in Horizon 2020 the EU will be investing around €2.6 billion on AI-related areas (robotics, big data, health, transport, future and emerging technologies).

Consequently expectations for the next research framework, that is now started to be debated amongst the colegislators, can also be confidently high.

However, these amounts represent only a small part of all the investments from the Member States and the private sector and we must be aware that Europe is behind in private investments in AI, €2.4-3.2 billion in 2016 in Europe, compared to €6.5-9.7 billion in Asia and €12.1-18.6 billion in North America.

With these figures in mind we must see EU research funds as the glue that links individual efforts, and in no way as the main investment source for AIs future.

Beyond these considerations, and although Artificial Intelligence has a purely technological research and innovation component, research on AI must also be undertaken in the social, ethical and liability areas.

For example, from a labour perspective, we must shape how technology enhances opportunities to work not destroys them.

More precisely a reskilling revolution is needed. Consequently the EU should, amongst other: support business education partnerships to attract and keep more AI talent in Europe, set up dedicated training and retraining schemes for professionals, support digital skills and competences in science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM), entrepreneurship and creativity, encourage Members States to modernise their education and training systems and elaborate a set of AI ethics guidelines.

These are all actions that the EU should start undertaking as soon as possible. In that sense it is worth underlining the role of the first ever Digital Europe programme whereby the Commission proposes to invest €9.2 billion to align the next long-term EU budget 2021-2027 with increasing digital challenges.

The proposed Digital Europe programme intends to tackle, with its own funds, and in a complementary way to the next research programme, Europe’s persistent upstream investment gap.

More precisely its aim is to provide a funding instrument that is tailored to the operational requirements of capacity building in the areas of high performance computing, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and advanced digital skills, and to exploit the synergies between them.

It is the right approach if we are to make of Europe a thriving data economy. All of these areas are closely interlinked and inter-dependent.

In addition the programme will dedicate, exclusively to AI, €2.5 billion. The aim should be to give better access for public authorities and businesses, especially SMEs, to AI testing and experimentation facilities in Member States.

Amongst the most promising Digital Europe programme proposals we find the development of common ‘European libraries’ of algorithms that would be accessible to all.

In addition open platforms and access to industrial data spaces for artificial intelligence will be made available across the EU in Digital Innovation Hubs, providing testing facilities and knowledge to small businesses and local innovators.

The European Union is with the Digital Europe programme, consolidating its AI strategy.

The EU has adopted legislation that will improve data sharing and open up more data for re-use, it has established a regulatory framework that will promote the deployment of the needed infrastructure, it counts with one of the most ambitious public research programme in the World and now is in the midst of adapting the first pan European digital fund that will help provide Europe with the right capabilities for AI to reach its full potential.