Chris Middleton explains why 25 countries’ ambitions for a joint approach to AI might lag behind Britain’s similar announcements this week and earlier this year, but could spell economic disaster for the semi-detached UK in the long run.
UPDATED The European Commission has today announced a new series of measures to put artificial intelligence (AI) at the service of citizens and boost Europe’s competitiveness in the field.
The Commission has proposed a three-pronged approach to “increase public and private investment in AI, prepare for socio-economic changes, and ensure an appropriate ethical and legal framework”.
The announcement follows European leaders’ recent call for a new continent-wide approach to AI – and recent independent moves by the UK to establish a new Office for AI and to put Britain in the vanguard of ethical AI deployments, via initiatives such as the new Ada Lovelace Institute, the new AI Sector Deal announced this week, and the new Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation.
Getting steamed up
Europe’s vice-president for the Digital Single Market, Andrus Ansip, said of the Commission’s ambitions: “Just as the steam engine and electricity did in the past, AI is transforming our world. It presents new challenges that Europe should meet together in order for AI to succeed and work for everyone.
“We need to invest at least €20 billion by the end of 2020. The Commission is playing its part: today, we are giving a boost to researchers so that they can develop the next generation of AI technologies and applications, and to companies, so that they can embrace and incorporate them.”
Europe has “world-class researchers, laboratories, and start-ups in the field of AI”, said today’s announcement. The EU is also “strong in robotics and has world-leading transport, healthcare and manufacturing sectors that should adopt AI to remain competitive”, it added.
However, the Commission acknowledged that fierce international competition demands coordinated action for the EU to remain at the forefront of AI development.
That competition comes from China, where the government’s stated aim is to dominate both AI and robotics in the next decade, and 1.3 billion citizens lack the data protections afforded by the EU via incoming regulations, such as GDPR. As a result, China’s AI systems can be trained by, and on, its citizens’ private data with few, if any, limits.
Further competition comes from Japan, where authorities are spending €184 billion on building a “super-smart society” by 2020, according to figures released in February 2016 at the Japan-UK Robotics and AI Seminar in London.
And of course, major competition comes from the US, which is locked in battle with China – not only in trade overall, but also for dominance of the AI, automated, and high-tech sectors.
Alphabet/Google/Waymo, IBM, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Oracle, Salesforce, SAP, JDA, and countless other enterprise companies are all reformatting their businesses around cognitive services – and some, such as Dell and (again) Microsoft, around the IoT too. Meanwhile, others such as Uber and Tesla, are developing other forms of autonomous systems for driverless cars and frictionless transport.
At least one US vendor is impressed with Europe’s strategy. Speaking about the announcement today, IBM’s VP of Government and Regulatory Affairs, Liam Benham, said: “The European Commission is taking the right approach to AI. Their strategy is grounded in ethics and a commitment to responsibility, it avoids a premature push to regulate, and its focus on bringing together industry, government, and academic expertise is essential in positioning Europe to help shape the AI future.”
Putting their euros where their mouth is
The EU’s public and private sectors need to increase investments in AI research and development by at least €20 billion between now and the end of 2020, confirmed the Commission. To support these efforts, the Commission itself is increasing its investment to €1.5 billion for the period 2018-2020 under the Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, according to today’s announcement.
Overall, the Commission said it will “support the development of AI in key sectors from transport to health; connect and strengthen AI research centres across Europe; and encourage testing and experimentation”. More, the Commission will support the development of an “AI-on-demand platform” that will provide access to relevant AI resources in the EU for all users, it said.
Additionally, the European Fund for Strategic Investments will be mobilised to provide companies and startups with additional support to invest in AI. The aim is to trigger a further €500 million in total investments by 2020 across a range of key sectors.
“With the dawn of artificial intelligence, many jobs will be created, but others will disappear and most will be transformed,” said the Commission. This is why it is encouraging Member States to modernise their education and training systems and support labour market transitions, building on the European Pillar of Social Rights.
In the UK, similar proposals have been made by industry body techUK, and within the UK’s new Industrial Strategy.
“New technologies should not mean new values”, said the announcement. Accordingly, the EC aims to present ethical guidelines on AI development by the end of this year, based on the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights – taking into account principles such as data protection and transparency, and building on the work of the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies.
As of today – and following the Declaration of cooperation signed by 24 Member States plus Norway on 10 April 2018 – the Commission will “start work with Member States to have a coordinated plan on AI by the end of the year”, it said.
• Also see our in-depth report on the UK’s new Sector Deal for AI, announced this week.
Internet of Business says
Today’s announcement will be seen as a mixed blessing by the soon-to-be-independent UK – and perhaps, in time, as a bitter pill to swallow.
On the one hand, Whitehall can claim to have stolen a march on the EU by announcing a range of similar initiatives earlier this year: retargeted funding and £300 million of new investment in AI, new programmes, the new Office for AI, and more – all led from within the (unfocused and thinly stretched) Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and (for some reason also) Sport.
But on the other, the UK now finds itself in competition with its allies, outside of the EU’s funding regime, and without the opportunity to lead the debate from within, or to benefit from the Single Market – or even the Customs Union. It was in this context that the UK announced its own new Sector Deal for AI this week.
When Internet of Business attended the Westminster e-Forum on AI policy in February 2018 – at which several of the UK’s own AI announcements were trailed – a high-ranking civil servant told us privately that the UK is now being “actively shut out” of European research programmes in which it had previously been a leader, core partner, and beneficiary.
Meanwhile, the UK has, independently, signalled its aim to lead the world in ethical AI – a move that might be given weight by the many prominent academics and researchers who are working in the UK, but which may now lack credibility as a direct result of Britain detaching itself from Europe, in which 25 countries now share the same aim.
And then there’s the numbers game: AI needs big training data to fine-tune its algorithms; that’s available in China, in the US, and within the EU. But can it be said to exist in the UK, whose small population – just 65.6 million – will shortly be detached from Europe’s 741 million?
And what of the other numbers game: the UK’s funding challenge in this new political landscape?
In most of the UK’s ‘Eight Great Technologies’ that the government has identified as being “critical to its future economic prosperity” – such as robotics and autonomous vehicles – the UK is falling a long way behind not only Japan, the US, South Korea, and China, but also its Western European allies.
For example, the UK’s robot density – the measure of the number of automated systems in industrial applications – only places it at 22nd in the world, according to the International Federation of Robotics. Even Belgium is in the top 10.
The fact is that the UK is simply not investing enough in those technologies to back its ambitions – and outside of the EU, it may be unable to do so at competitive and sustainable global levels. (Beyond that, the UK also suffers from poor network connectivity in global terms, as this separate report explains.)
But here’s the real time bomb in the UK’s finances. Last year’s RSA report on robotics and AI, The Age of Automation, included a troubling finding. Buried in the small print was a note saying that over 80 percent of the UK’s central funding for robotics, AI, and related technologies, comes from a single source: Europe. A fact that the government has either forgotten, or neglected to mention when it has talked about UK investment levels.
So any new announcement of additional funding should be carefully examined, to see if it has been matched by a cut in funds from the EU.
Another delegate at February’s Westminster e-Forum AI event – a leading British academic in the field of robotics – confirmed this when he told Internet of Business that “the EU has been the salvation of British robotics”, because the UK has long been able to access European funding for local research and development.
Post-Brexit, much of that funding will – presumably – vanish. Despite the announcement of £300 million of extra money being put aside for AI investment this week.
Whatever your political views, or your stance on the UK’s relationship with Europe moving forward, two things seem inescapable. One, the UK has demonstrably cut off its nose to spite its face when it comes to the ‘Eight Great Technologies’, and the sustained funding levels demanded by them to guarantee Britain’s economic prosperity in the future.
And two, the so-called ‘iron rule of trade’ will kick in as soon as Brexit happens: trade halves as distance doubles.
In short, simple physics and proximity render the UK permanently attached to Europe in trading terms, but it must now fund all of its new-technology ambitions itself, independently. To date, it has not been willing to do so – at least not at realistic levels, judging from the piecemeal sums invested by the British government in AI and robotics, when compared to the EU, China, Japan, and the US (a few hundred million pounds, versus the others’ tens of billions, or hundreds of billions).
Post Brexit, it may simply be unable to find enough money in comparative global terms, even if it has the political will to do so. Given the critical importance of these technologies to Britain’s future economic prosperity – in the government’s own words – this would be nothing short of a national tragedy.