In December 2018, the European Commission released a “Coordinated Plan on Artificial Intelligence” which encourages all European member states to develop their own national AI strategies by mid-2019 and to work with the Commission to develop common metrics to measure AI adoption. While some member states have already created national AI strategies, others have not or have only included dimensions of AI within broader digital strategies. Moreover, every member state is different, so the policies, priorities, and financial commitments in each national AI strategy will vary.
On April 4, 2019, experts and representatives from the European Commission, Finland, France, Lithuania, and the Netherlands joined a discussion in Brussels to take stock of the progress achieved so far across member states; compare targets, priorities, and dimensions; and assess the extent to which these national strategies can support Europe’s goal of becoming a global leader in AI. Eline Chivot, senior policy analyst at the Center for Data Innovation, moderated the discussion.
All speakers agreed that, to remain competitive in the global race for AI, the EU will need more investment, more workers trained in AI-relevant skills, more shared resources including data, and a regulatory environment that will foster the development and use of AI.
One of the central themes of the discussion was the need for better coordination across member states and sectors, so as to strengthen research capabilities and transfer of results to industry. Sharing, networking, and collaborating efforts will be Europe’s winning strategy for competing globally.
Virginijus Sinkevičius, minister of economy and innovations of the Republic of Lithuania, highlighted that AI is one of the ways to ensure the wellbeing of its citizens and contributes to the prosperity of the EU. The strength of the EU in AI will depend on each of its members’ own strength and readiness to contribute.
Minister Sinkevičius added that all assets—scientists, data, research facilities—should be used in this endeavor. The role of governments is to act as a catalyst to facilitate the effort through coordination, support to entrepreneurs developing AI, and access to capital. Irina Orssich, policy officer at DG Connect, where she coordinates AI strategies, mentioned that all member states understand that, in order to maximize their synergies and complementarities, they must work together in a coordinated fashion. This requires that each reflects on its own strengths and weaknesses, to identify where investments are needed and what steps are essential for each of them to succeed in AI.
In order to be globally competitive, it is essential for European countries to develop their own AI strategies. Minister Sinkevičius mentioned that in the global race for AI, Europe’s position has yet to challenge China, an emerging AI superpower with an aggressive strategy, a considerable amount of data, and high public funding. The United States remains in the lead in AI, with strong private investment and policies allowing to stretch the use data much more than in the EU. In this catch-up game, “Europe is dragging its feet behind. If this was a football match, we would have already lost the first half, but we do have a chance to do much better in the second half, and we can count on 28 players.”
Individual strategies allow member states to focus on bespoke solutions. According to Claudine Vliegen, Attaché for Telecom and Digital Affairs at the Permanent Representation of the Netherlands to the EU, as many of the regulations which AI will impact are European legislation, national AI strategies will have more of a stimulating role.
Smaller nations like Lithuania, Finland, and the Netherlands share a common “bottom-up” vision. The Netherlands has not officially published its AI strategy but has developed some preparatory work. France follows a more “top-down” logic, while introducing concrete decisions and tools such as AI clusters in selected cities, a supercomputer, and by having built its approach through a large and open consultation as well. Pascal Rogard, Digital, Telecom and Postal Service Counsellor at the Permanent Representation of France to the EU, recalled that France was one of the first member states to publish its AI strategy, as the country recognized early on that the global competition does not give Europe the luxury to “just wait and see.”
Janne Peltola, Counsellor for Competitiveness, Industry, and Internal Market at the Permanent Representation of Finland to the EU, mentioned that Finland aims to achieve AI deployment for SMEs through an “AI accelerator,” initiated by the Ministry of Economy and Employment with Finland’s association of technology.
Member states focus on various sectors—for example, Finland’s strategy highlights healthcare and well-being, France prioritizes health, transport, the environment, and defense, while the Netherlands sees potential for AI development in the areas of health, agriculture, mobility, and decarbonization.
Data sharing and strong research will be key in accelerating AI uptake. Dutch attaché Vliegen discussed how the Dutch government sees a lot of opportunities in cross-sectoral and cross-border data sharing, and aims to act as a facilitator in this area. Rogard suggested that there needs to be more incentives for companies to be willing to share their data. This requires a framework with some rules that give businesses clear guarantees on how the data will be used, with whom it will be shared, under which conditions, and the end benefits. It is also important for companies to retain some control over their data.
According to Vliegen, the Netherlands will set out high standards of security and privacy and will provide support to businesses engaging in data sharing by informing them on how to comply with these standards. Governments should encourage companies to use the EU’s ethical guidelines, which go beyond and further than having to comply with legislation.
To create trust and confidence in data sharing, the EU is creating a European data space, which will include private and public data.
Orssich and Rogard both recalled that Europe has a strong research network of institutes and a significant amount of data available. To keep this lead, Europe must attract more talent and retain the innovations its startups develop. This requires an ecosystem which ensures transfer from research to the economy.
Education and skills are a key pillar of most AI strategies across the board. Countries view brain drain as a threat to AI research in the EU and promote strategies and tools to attract foreign skills and retain top talent in AI.
For Lithuania’s Minister of Economy, AI is an opportunity window, but society knows little about it. Citizens are raising reasonable questions and concerns, such as regarding the future of their jobs, that need to be addressed. This starts by the development of programs integrating AI at university level, but also by teaching AI basics in primary education.
Peltola agreed by using the example of Finnish author Linda Liukas’s children books which demystify coding and teach children the basics of computational thinking. Peltola added that Finland’s AI strategy set out to educate the country’s entire population in basic AI, which it sees as a “civic competence.” The initial target was to train one percent of its population with basic AI knowledge. To this end, Finland developed a massive open online course (MOOC) of 10 hours, which has been taken up by 100,000 participants so far i.e., over 2 percent of the population—exceeding the objective.
Another key theme of the event involved ethics and regulation for AI. Chivot asked the speakers to explain the extent to which a human-centric, ethical approach can truly make a difference for Europe’s competitiveness in AI.
All speakers made a strong case that Europe is set to emerge as a global leader in “trustworthy AI.” Their countries have set up their own working groups to reflect on the ethical aspects of AI. Orssich emphasized that both the public sector and the private sector must work together on an ethical policy for AI. Regulators cannot act alone; they need to involve both member states and businesses in this decision, or these will be left further behind. But according to the Commission, AI will only be successful if people want to use it. To this end, ensuring trust in Europe is indispensable. French attaché Rogard added that with AI, trust is not a given commodity and that there needs to be more transparency. For example, France published and explained the algorithm that selects students’ applications to universities, to ensure people know that there is equal treatment, and that there is no bias or discrimination.
Both Finland and the Netherlands consider it important that regulation should not be prescriptive and should help countries deliver on their policy goals. A robust and efficient legislative framework should include the right safeguards for safety and liability, but it should at the same time be sufficiently flexible to foster innovation.
The Commission’s representative recalled that the EU is massively investing in AI skills and capabilities. The Commission has committed €1.5 billion to fund AI research in the next two years as part of Horizon 2020 program—a 70 percent yearly increase. The EU aims to reach a total AI spend of €20 billion per year for the next ten years, together with its member states. Funding through Horizon Europe and the new Digital Europe program will target AI research, innovation and deployment, and the development of digital skills. The EU needs to allocate investments where member states need them the most. For example, to strengthen research, the EU needs to scale up its testing facilities, and to support businesses, it must transfer research results to industry. To this end, the EU must develop corridors for automated driving, blockchain centers such as Lithuania’s, and smart hospitals, ensuring its member states can work together on these common projects. To ensure AI investments will be a joint effort that benefit all countries, large and small, the EU has planned joint monitoring to take stock of the accomplishments and evaluate the next actions for next year’s coordinated plan. AI Watch, a joint program of DG Connect and the Joint Research Centre to monitor and evaluate the uptake and impact of AI in Europe, are developing indicators with member states, to calculate, monitor, target, and assess investments proportionally.
Overall, AI will have a substantial impact on the global economy, and therefore, it is imperative for European countries to develop effective strategies in order to remain globally competitive.