By Roberto V. Zicari, editor ODBMS.org
I recently interviewed Roberto Viola, Director General of DG CONNECT (Directorate General of Communication Networks, Content and Technology) at the European Commission. We talked about the future of AI in Europe, and the new initiatives of the European Commission to foster public and private investment in AI, and to create a “Digital Europe programme”.
Q1. Companies with big data pools do have great economic power. Today, that shortlist includes USA companies such as Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Chinese companies such as Baidu. None of these companies are European.
USA and China are ahead of Europe in developing Data-driven services and solutions, often based on AI. Would you like to comment on this?
Roberto Viola: Europe is quite strong in many areas of AI: it is home to world-class researchers, labs and start-ups, and we have a strong industrial base that can be at the forefront of the adoption of AI. We can capitalise on our assets and strengthen European leadership by supporting excellence in research, particularly in areas where we already lead e.g. in robotics.
However, it is true that, overall Europe is behind in private investment in AI, compared to North America and Asia, and that is why it is crucial that the EU creates an environment that stimulates investment. Our goal is to build on our strengths and support the European entrepreneurial spirit. We must also ensure broader and easier access to services for citizens and industry and address socio-economic and legal issues, based on strong European values such as privacy and data protection.
It is important for European countries and various stakeholders to work together when trying to accomplish these things. That is why we created the European AI Alliance. Here, everyone with an interest in AI can imagine its future shape, discuss how to maximise the benefits for everyone or debate how to develop ethical AI. I would also like to use this opportunity to invite everyone with an expertise or interest in AI to join the AI Alliance and actively participate in it.
Q2. What are in your opinion the main challenges in the adoption of AI in Europe?
Roberto Viola: The biggest challenge is the adoption of AI all over Europe by organisations of any size and in all fields, not just in the tech sector. This is a key priority for us. AI is already in use in many areas in Europe, and surveys show that the benefits of adopting AI are widely recognised by European businesses. However, only a fraction of European companies have already adopted digital technologies. This situation is particularly acute in the SME category: last year for example, only 10% of SMEs in the EU were using big data analytics, which could in turn be used to build AI technologies.
Europe can only reap the full benefits of AI if all have easy access to the technology and to related knowledge and services. That is why we focus on facilitating access for all potential users to AI technologies, in particular SMEs, companies from non-tech sectors and public administrations, and encourage them to test AI solutions. We aim to achieve this by setting up an AI-on-demand platform and via a network of Digital Innovation Hubs (DIHs). This includes both an existing network of more than 400 DIHs and a new dedicated network of AI-focused DIHs.
Q3. AI technologies can be used either to automate or to augment humans. In the first case, machines replace people, in the second case machine complements people (at least in theory). What is your take on this?
Roberto Viola: I believe that AI cannot only make the lives of workers easier, for example by helping with repetitive, strenuous or dangerous tasks but that it can also provide new solutions by supporting more people to participate and remain in the labour market, including people with disabilities. It is estimated, for example, that around 90% of road accidents are caused by human errors. AI can help to reduce this number. It is vital, however, that these new developments and uses of AI are carried out in an environment of trust and accountability. Creating a suitable ethical and legal framework is key to our European approach on AI and draft AI ethics guidelines will be developed by the end of the year.
AI will both create and destroy jobs, and it will certainly transform many of the existing jobs. AI, like other new technologies before it, is expected to change the nature of work and transform the labour market. It remains unclear what the net effect will be, and studies of the subject differ widely. However, it is obvious that our workforce will have to re-skill and up-skill to be able to master these changes. The ICT sector has created 1.8 million jobs since 2011 and the need for ICT specialists continues to grow. There are now at least 350,000 vacancies for such professionals in Europe pointing to significant skills gaps. Preparing for these socioeconomic changes is one of the three main dimensions of the EU initiative on AI: we need to prepare society as a whole, help workers in jobs that are most likely to be transformed or to disappear, and train more specialists in AI.
Q4. The European Commission has recently proposed an approach to increase public and private investment in AI in Europe. Can you elaborate on this?
Roberto Viola: Our ambitious proposals for investment in AI include a total of EUR20 billion in public and private funding for the period 2018-2020, and then reaching a yearly average of EUR20 billion in the decade after 2020.
The Commission is stepping up its own investment to roughly EUR1.5 billion by the end of 2020 – an increase of around 70%.
The total amounts that we have proposed can be achieved if Member States and the private sector make similar investment efforts, and we are working closely with the Member States on a coordinated action plan on AI to be agreed by the end of 2018, with a view to maximising the impact of such investments at EU and national level.
Under the next multiannual budget of the EU, the Commission plans to increase its investment in AI further, mainly through two programmes: the research and innovation framework programme Horizon Europe, and a new programme called Digital Europe.
Out of a total of nearly EUR100 billion for 2021-2027 under Horizon Europe, the Commission proposes to invest EUR15 billion in the Digital and Industry cluster, which also includes AI as a key activity.
We intend to fund both research and innovation and the accelerating adoption of AI. We will support basic and industrial research, and breakthrough market-creating innovation. Building on Member States’ efforts to establish joint AI-focused research centres, the objective is to strengthen AI excellence centres across Europe by facilitating collaboration and networking between them. Furthermore, the Commission will provide support for testing and experimentation infrastructures that are open to businesses of all sizes and from all regions.
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