How Artificial Intelligence Has Taken Center Stage in the EU’s Policy Agenda

In April 2018, the European Commission (EC) published its blueprint strategy for AI. The plan sets out a timeline for an R&D and regulatory effort that will dominate the agenda of European decision makers in the months ahead. With Europe’s competitiveness, growth and jobs at stake, Member States like France and Germany are devising their own national AI strategies. Despite lagging behind the U.S. and China in AI investments, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has made it clear: “We also want to compete and be in the forefront.”

The transformative power of AI is already shifting our healthcare systems, driving efficiencies and pushing the boundaries of our industries and everyday lives. But it is also having profound implications for the broader economy, sparking concerns among policy makers about the social and ethical issues arising from its application. As Europe seeks its path to AI development, its penchant for high data privacy standards and ethics-first approach is poised to have an impact beyond its boundaries, as demonstrated by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Identifying challenges and opportunities in the EU’s AI strategy

Businesses are faced with significant challenges to realize the full potential of AI. These range from financial pressures to skills gap or lack of public trust in AI systems. The three core pillars underpinning Europe’s AI strategy aim to address some of these challenges.

The three pillars are:

  1. Boosting capacity and investments
  2. Preparing for the socio-economic changes
  3. Ensuring “an appropriate ethical and legal framework” for AI

The strategy sets out the goal to increase public and private R&D investments in AI to at least €20 billion by the end of 2020 from an estimated total of €4 billion to €5 billion last year. Beyond these goals, it remains to be seen whether the EU will manage to secure the required scale of investments to compete with the U.S. and China in the AI economy.

Today, Europe produces more than a quarter of the world’s industrial and professional service robots, used in health, logistics, precision farming or security. The EU’s leading industries – namely manufacturing, healthcare, transport and space technologies – rely on AI to retain its leadership position. Yet concerns about data control and massive layoffs as a result of new technologies seem to dominate the EU policy debate at the expense of the economic potential. Balanced public policy decisions need to ensure that citizens’ rights are protected, but also support a thriving AI ecosystem that can propel growth and jobs in Europe in the decades to come.

The early stage of the EU’s policy development in AI offers companies engagement opportunities to provide input and help inform a more balanced decision-making approach. The strategy involves the creation of a High-Level Expert Group (HLG) on AI and the European AI Alliance, with representatives from financial services, healthcare, automobile and manufacturing sectors, consumer organizations and academics. These groups are tasked with putting forward recommendations on upcoming AI regulations and ethics guidelines and drive the implementation of the EU strategy. Last year, the European Parliament also called for the establishment of a European Agency for Robotics and AI to provide the “expertise needed” to support regulatory. These developments warrant attention by technology companies operating in the EU.

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Gurpreet Brar is general manager, Brussels.

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