At the start of the year, Brexit and the fast-approaching US presidential election were dominating the media agenda. In more recent months attention has, of course, turned to coronavirus. But under the surface, a long way from TV reports and newspaper headlines, an important global movement is underway: the race for AI supremacy.
The battle to achieve major breakthroughs in artificial intelligence (AI) and its applications has to date been dominated by two leading tech powerhouses. With geopolitical power and economic transformations as the ultimate goal, the US and China have led the charge in developing AI.
In 2017, China laid out a three-step roadmap to become the world leader in AI by 2030. It hopes to make the industry worth 1 trillion yuan, or $147.7 billion, within the next decade. Already, it has announced billions in funding for innovative startups and launched programmes to entice researchers. It might not be long before it gains an edge over the US.
That said, the US continues to pave the way, as is the case with many new fields of technology. In 2019, President Donald Trump signed an executive order announcing the American AI Initiative, which orders funds, programmes and data to be directed towards the research and commercialisation of AI. The event underlined America’s intention to make AI a national priority.
The importance of government involvement cannot be overstated; not only does it lay the groundwork for infrastructure and regulation, it also encourages private investment. US companies have raised more than half (56%) of global AI investment since 2015, followed by China. The question we must now ask is this: where does Europe stand in the global AI ‘arms race’?
Can Europe catch up?
Europe trails behind its rivals, but not for a lack of talent. Indeed, it enjoys a strong tech startup community; according to McKinsey, Europe is home to approximately 25% of the world’s AI startups, and boasts close to six million professional developers – more than in the US.
However, there is a distinct funding gap, with excessive restrictions threatening to stall progress.
The approach of regulating innovation across the EU bloc is well-intentioned, yet it risks stifling the future creation and deployment of innovative new toolsets. The pilot of ethical AI guidelines released by the European Commission in April 2019 provides a useful example. These guidelines offer a loose framework for the development and application of AI, proposing a revised set of standards to be followed. The aim is to ensure that AI programmes are undertaken ethically and responsibly, without posing undue risk to citizens.
A recent European Commission white paper recommends a risk-based approach to ensure regulatory intervention is proportionate. The burden on data scientists and AI developers to prove that their proposed products and services are entirely risk-free, however, is likely to impede their ambitions.
The criteria for falling under the ‘high-risk’ category is also, as yet unclear; this will only serve to deter or delay investment in AI. After all, no new technology is completely devoid of risks – particularly in the initial stages of development.
Artificial Intelligence remains an ocean of unchartered waters, and we must ensure that appropriate levels of resource are diverted towards pushing the digital frontier. I do not suggest that we should do away with all regulatory standards. Rather, we must have checks and balances that both allow us to unleash the potential of AI, whilst at the same time safeguarding citizen’s rights.
Why does it matter?
If the digital gap is not closed, Europe will fall even further behind the US and China. There would be economic, social and political consequences – Europe would likely not enjoy the benefits AI can offer within both the public and private sector, startups would miss out on investment to competitors overseas, and the technological behemoths of the future would not be headquartered in European nations but elsewhere, resulting in a loss of job opportunities and taxable income.
Indeed, AI has become a new engine of economic development, promising a boost to national economies and wide-scale efficiency gains across both the private and public sectors.
McKinsey estimates that on average, at the current rate of progress, AI could boost growth in European economic activity by almost 20% by 2030 – adding €2.7 trillion to its combined output. However, if Europe bolsters its efforts and sufficiently catches up with the US AI frontier, this number could be revised upwards to €3.6 trillion.
Monetary benefits aside, there are huge gains to be had on an individual and national scale. Take our public services for example: public sector organisations like the health sector are already exploring how they can utilise AI solutions to deliver better services. Access to intelligent machines provides more accurate and detailed information, and powers better informed decision making. Funnelling investment into creating solutions can only raise the bar for the provision of public goods and services.
At the same time, AI is already reinventing our job market. By diverting repetitive, complicated and time-consuming tasks to computers, businesses spanning all sectors are reaping the rewards – both in terms of increased profit margins, as well as a more satisfied workforce that can leave the grunt work to sophisticated software.
AI has the power to reshape our society, and we must ensure that pushing the boundaries of this technology remains a priority going forward. Europe can still catch up, but only through a convergence of government and business will it be able to gain an edge in AI. Aligning the needs of the startup community with national and international strategies will foster innovation and allow entrepreneurs to pioneer progress in this field.
Author: Nikolas Kairinos, CEO, Fountech.ai