April 25, 2018 By FTI Consulting
The race for leadership in Artificial Intelligence (AI) is well under way. A recent FTI Consulting snapshot outlined that governments across the globe have shifted gears, taking a more active role on AI. China has already claimed it will out-compete the US before 2030 as global AI leader, while countries such as Japan or Canada have adopted ambitious AI strategies they believe will help them gain the lead.
The EU does currently not have an overarching legislative approach towards AI. To date, it has mainly focused on ensuring that some of its funding schemes benefit AI-related R&D (around €1 billion 2014-2020). But, better late than never, a common strategy has been published on 25 April. It is not expected to set any regulatory boundaries as the Commission recognises that AI is still evolving rapidly. Instead, it will look at how best to promote AI to benefit Europe’s people and businesses, its society and economy. It will also address ethical, legal and socio-economic aspects.
In the meantime, Franco-German plans to enter the race materialized on March 29th, when France’s President Emmanuel Macron disclosed his national strategy for AI. In this he allocates a €1.5 billion ($1.85 billion) budget to fund research and development in the field of AI over the next five years in hopes of creating a supportive ecosystem for start-ups and to attract AI experts. Part of that funding will be earmarked for joint Franco-German projects.
‘I want France to become a leader in AI, we have the capacities, we must create the proper conditions’, Emmanuel Macron declared at the prestigious Collège de France.
Less than two months earlier, on February 7th, Angela Merkel’s Conservative Union (CDU/CSU) and the Social Democrats (SPD), finally formed a new coalition government in Germany. AI features prominently in the coalitions agreed priorities:
We want to turn Germany into a leading centre for research into artificial intelligence. To this end, we are planning to convert the Platform Learning Systems into a National Syndicate for Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning and consequently adjust it to applications in all areas of the research and innovation strategy…We will, together with our French partners, install a public centre for artificial intelligence.
The prominence that both counties have placed on this emerging field at the highest political level is a testament to the seriousness in which they take the global race.
In France, a report entitled “Giving sense to AI” by (centre-right) MP Cédric Villani, an eminent mathematician, laid the groundwork for Macron’s national AI strategy. The report calls for the creation of an efficient and strong AI ecosystem both in France and more broadly in Europe. The report focuses on four strategic sectors in which a strong impetus of the State is required: healthcare, mobility and transport (with a strong focus on autonomous driving); defence and security; sustainable environment; and ecology.
Germany, with its strong industrial base, on the other hand, is already well positioned in the sectors of machine learning and Industry 4.0. Germany’s Research Centre for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI) known as one of the world’s biggest AI centres and ideally located at the border with France, is predestined to play a key role in Franco-German research in this field.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating
Yet, Europe must not copy the US or China as it forges and implements a common strategy, but rather focus on its own strengths and stay on its own AI track. Implementing AI comes with many threats to risk-averse European societies with high ethical boundaries, EU industry leaders will face challenges when integrating such technologies into today’s highly regulated sectors, like health or finance. President Macron’s view is clear: “We have to consider the subject from a political and ethical point of view … to come up with a common understanding and rules. This is the way that we can guarantee our future industry”.
Initial policy initiatives, such as the General Data Protection Regulation, the free flow of non-personal data, as well as research and funding into algorithms and supercomputing, are surfacing. Once being discussed, it is imperative for the industry to maintain an ongoing dialogue with the public, civil society, and academia as their opinions will be crucial in swaying policy makers’ opinions and actions. The fear of the unknown that surrounds AI is the single biggest challenge and could lead to the impediment and mishandling of future policy.
In this context, Merkel and Macron have declared AI to be top priority. ‘Mercron’ will have to live up to the expectations. Clearly money does not always win a race and leadership is equally critical. Promoting innovation, attracting skilled labor, and supporting the development of new companies in the sector are key for creating business friendly environments. Dealing with associated threats in a responsible manner is politically inevitable at this point. But identifying opportunities and the implications of missing them will be equally important.
That said, Merkel and Macron are the perfect match to lead Europe into the global AI race. Macron’s visions, ambitions and optimism combined with Merkel’s strong leadership skills is a setup that might just make the difference for Europe.
Transforming a strong political will into a successful business ecosystem
It remains to be seen if joining political forces will be enough to catch up for these two countries. According to numerous experts, politicians are still not seizing the emergency/urgency of the situation and the unstoppable advancement of the US and China. Having prestigious AI research centres is no longer enough. They rather pledge for a progressive, AI-friendly ecosystem for researchers and businesses.
Pushing forward, the tandem is likely to exert significant influence on the common European strategy and may set the tone on EU-legislation. On March 29th, the German Federal Minister of Education, Anja Karliczek delivered a speech highlighting the importance of the German-French cooperation: “This is our chance to take joint action in order to shape AI internationally”. Anyone with stakes in AI is therefore well advised to sit at the Franco-German table.
From an industrial perspective, the Villani’s report calls for “a European Industrial Momentum with regard to AI” and insists to initiate this work within a Franco-German axis. Industries such as European Robotics and automotive sector are particularly mentioned. The Franco-German duo is also expected on driverless cars as Macron underlines the current German lead and announced a specific French strategy for mid-April.
However finding the right balance will also depend on industry being prepared to actively participate in the discourse. While industry leaders will face challenges when integrating such technologies into today’s highly regulated sectors, regulators still have a limited understanding of the technology and its applications. Therefore, now, more than ever, governments depend on support and guidance from industry, academia and civil society to guide them through the intricacies, to credibly counteracting fears, and to find common ground for a business-friendly AI environment. The entire AI ecosystem has to be considered and European regulators have to be careful on not to overemphasize ethical issues and to leave job and value creation to other actors.
For now, it seems at least, that the message is a credible one. That same day, following the publication of the French report, Samsung, Deepmind, IBM and Fujitsu ‘chose France’ to invest in AI, confirming the country’s appeal (while Google, Facebook and Microsoft already invested after the ‘Choose France Summit’ in Versailles).
Many hurdles remain and more are likely to rise– the race is long.