AI: will Europe create value or merely defend its values?

By bringing together technical expertise and know-how with vast scale and data the EU can achieve a more effective and pragmatic approach to AI policy, writes Digital Europe’s Cecilia Bonefeld-Dahl.
Photo Credit: Digital Europe

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the driver of a new technological and economic era. Appropriately applied, AI technologies can change the world as we know it and kick off both growth and massive improvements to citizens' lives.

With AI, the world stands with a technological achievement whose potential can hardly be overstated. A cautious suggestion is that AI can improve productivity by 40 percent in most European countries. While some studies indicate that it could double economic growth for several countries.


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Already today, we see that AI is used in all sectors. For instance, in healthcare, we can vastly improve the early detection of diseases and work towards personalised and more effective treatments. In the transport sector, we can reduce traffic jams and optimise fuel efficiency with AI-based route planning.

These kinds of improvements can also allow us to achieve our sustainability goals by reducing global emissions by as much as 20 percent by 2030.

“And it is right there, in between financial value creation and social value preservation, that we must find the right equilibrium. We need to make room for growth while maintaining a sound economy and standing firm on the fundamental values that make us Europeans”

Challenges remain

Even though Europe has some of the world’s brightest brains in AI research, and while we have a high number of technology experts in comparison to our size, it has not resulted in a similar number of scalable companies with global growth potential.

Only 12 percent of tech unicorns are based in Europe and when, or if, the UK leaves only five percent will remain in continental Europe. This clearly shows that right now Europe is not on a path to financial stability or becoming one of the world’s leading innovation engines.

When it comes to investment in AI, both public and private, Europe is clearly behind the curve compared to the US and China. Our internal market is still fragmented and not one European single market, where companies and start-ups can grow and flourish. In fact, only eight percent of SMEs trade across EU boarders.

We do not want a society that sacrifices privacy and human rights, nor do we want economic growth that neglects or leaves people behind. 52 percent of the EU’s working population will need to be reskilled in the next five years due to digitalisation. This is a serious challenge that companies, unions, governments and the EU need to focus on. We should share the benefits of innovation and technology and empower our people to understand and fill the new jobs of the digital era.

“This is a great example of agile policy-making; by piloting the Guidelines and getting feedback, we can build a more effective and pragmatic approach to AI policy”

Recommendations from the AI High-Level Expert Group

Over the past year, new AI strategies were released almost monthly, each seeking to push Europe forward and set out a framework to realise the benefits of AI for our society while minimising the risks.

And it is right there, in between financial value creation and social value preservation, that we must find the right equilibrium. We need to make room for growth while maintaining a sound economy and standing firm on the fundamental values that make us Europeans.

As part of the Commission’s AI High-Level Expert Group, I work together with other stakeholders across industry, academia and civil society to achieve precisely this goal.

Over the last few months, we have published Guidelines and Recommendations to formulate an ethical foundation for a trustworthy AI, as well as offering practical steps European policymakers can take to stimulate AI development.

We are also planning a piloting phase, to get feedback from all AI stakeholders, public agencies and citizens. This is a great example of agile policymaking; by piloting the Guidelines and getting feedback, we can build a more effective and pragmatic approach to AI policy.  

Being agile and flexible, also from a policymakers’ perspective, will be crucial. This means that we should make use of sandboxing regulatory proposals that allow us to see how legislation works in practice and improve on that basis.

We also encourage more cooperation between the private and public sectors. There is incredible potential in this collaboration, by bringing together technical expertise and know-how with vast scale and data.

But, of course, it requires both national and European leaders to advance a single harmonised market to the next stage, with the new European Commission and Parliament. I sincerely hope our work in the AI High-Level Expert Group, and our cooperation towards a common goal between a diverse set of stakeholders, can be an inspiration.

The key question for the application and regulation of AI in Europe is therefore: Will we create value - or will we merely defend our values?

Read the most recent articles written by Cecilia Bonefeld-Dahl - Digital technologies can help us tackle Coronavirus, but we need to invest now

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