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Europe’s efforts to catch up on China and US

The European Commission wants to transform Europe into a single digital market and declares its wish for a European approach to artificial intelligence.

Despite being late to the game, Europe finally seems ready to take action: The European Commission wants to transform Europe into a single digital market and declares its wish for a European approach to artificial intelligence. This declaration comes not a minute too soon for leading scientists, experts and businesses who yearn for a united European science-hub.

In its typical dry tone, the EU Commission has issued a fact sheet about “Artificial intelligence for Europe”, wherein it is said that the Commission „puts forward a European approach to Artificial Intelligence based on three pillars. The first one being ahead of technological developments and encouraging uptake by the public and private sectors, second to prepare for socio-economic changes brought about by AI and lastly to ensure an appropriate ethical and legal framework.”

As a starting point one would love for the EU Commission to have spiced up its own dry tone by using AI in order to describe this rather challenging and exciting topic. But, actions speak louder than words and Europe finally seems ready to make things happen.

Investing in a single digital market

The paper promises nothing less than a European vision for an encouraging environment for the changes that are to come regarding AI. Realising that the creation of a digital single market, including the free flow of data across borders, is key for the development of AI.
The Commission is increasing its annual investments in AI by 70% under the research and innovation programme Horizon 2020. It will reach EUR 1.5 billion for the period 2018-2020. The plan: to connect and strengthen AI research centres across Europe, to support the development of an “AI-on-demand platform” that will provide access to relevant AI resources in the EU for all users and to furthermore support the development of AI applications in key sectors. These sectors are in robotics, big data, health, transport, future and emerging technologies.

Private Investments in AI in 2016 (Rethink/ Vodafone Institute)

Two agricultural examples of projects in which the EU is investing according to its fact sheet: They contributed €5.4 million to Trimbot2020, a project that develops an intelligent gardening robot which can trim hedges, roses and bushes. 19.7 million Euro went to MARS, a mobile robot that plants seeds while workers monitor the process remotely.

Digital economist Dr. Holger Schmidt says AI will be extremely important for nearly all industries. Europe is right to work on the transfer of knowledge into the economic sphere.

Understanding AI better

But what about the second pillar? The preparation for the socio-economic changes which are to come? The EU Commission is working on that one too. In June 2018 the first Stakeholder Summit on Artificial Intelligence, organised by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and the European Commission, took place in Brussels. It stressed that the EU must ensure that artificial intelligence is safe, unbiased and in line with European values. Participants underlined the importance of new forms of education, which not only should allow people to understand artificial intelligence better, but also prepare them to adapt to a changing labour market.

But not only politicians know that Europe has to catch up soon if it wants to participate and profit from a truly life-changing technology: In a desperate bid to nurture and retain top talent in Europe leading European scientists have drawn up plans for a vast multinational European institute devoted to world-class artificial intelligence (AI) research in Europe. The new institute would be set up for similar reasons as Cern, the particle physics lab near Geneva, which was created after the second world war to rebuild European physics and reverse the departure of the brightest and best scientists to the US.

Named the European Lab for Learning and Intelligent Systems, or Ellis, the proposed AI institute would have major centres in a handful of countries. Each centre employing hundreds of computer engineers, mathematicians and other scientists with the express aim of keeping Europe at the forefront of AI research.

A very important and necessary step according to Holger Schmidt: „This is one of the most urgent tasks for Europe: creating work environments to avoid the brain drain. AI-specialists are in great demand in many industries.“

Demanding a European AI-Science-Hub

And Europe and AI truly have got a momentum right now. In an open letter which the German Newspaper FAZ obtained before being released, more than 550 European experts confirm they want to create a science-hub which can hold its own when compared to those in the US and Asia writes the newspaper, exclusively. The name: Claire. Claire stands for „Confederation of Laboratories for Artificial Intelligence in Europe“. Europe must play an important role in how artificial intelligence changes our world – and it should profit from it as well, wrote the scientists in the letter according to FAZ.

And the last, the third pillar of the European approach? To ensure an appropriate ethical and legal framework? Guy Verhoefstadt, member of the European Parliament, outlined an idea, in a commentary on project syndicate.org: “While other countries are also considering new rules for robots and AI, the EU has a unique opportunity to take the lead, he writes. By acting now, he continues, we can ensure that the EU will not be forced to follow regulatory frameworks set by other countries. Ultimately, global rules will be required; and Europe has a chance to set the standard for what they should look like. By establishing regulations and standards now, the EU can ensure that all Europeans will benefit from the coming changes, rather than be engulfed by chaos.”

AI-guided agricultural robot-fleet MARS in Action (©AGCO Fendt)