EU must address ICT skills shortfall before unlocking AI potential

An ICT skills shortage needs to be urgently addressed before Europe unlocks the full potential of AI, reports Martin Banks.
Photo Credit: Huawei

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

20 Dec 2018

Europe can become a leader in championing the uptake of new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), a high-level conference has been told.

However, the annual “Academia Salon” in Brussels on 22 November, organised by Huawei, heard that an ICT skills shortage needs to be urgently addressed before Europe unlocks the full potential of AI.

The keynote address was given by Abraham Liu, Huawei’s chief representative to the EU institutions and its vice-president of the European Region.


He told the packed audience that the focus of the event this year was ‘Delivering European Leadership in AI’ and the “building blocks” that need to be in place to ensure that Europe can maximise the “huge” potential that AI offers.

He said Europe is well placed to take advantage of the “world-class research facilities” it offers.

Liu said that one of the objectives of his company was to help “accelerate” innovation in ICT and AI, pointed out that Huawei invests 10 percent of its revenue in R&D. In 2017, this amounted to some €12bn.

The company, he noted, had established 21 R&D facilities in 12 European countries and was working closely with 100 universities in Europe.

“We firmly believe that new technologies present lots of new opportunities and ICT and AI bring some of the biggest opportunities” Abraham Liu, Huawei chief representative to the EU institutions and vice-president for the European Region

“This is benefiting both our customers and consumers generally,” he told the conference.

Huawei predicts that by 2025 there will be over 40bn personal smart devices in the world and 90 percent of users will have a “smart digital assistant.”

He added, “We firmly believe that new technologies present lots of new opportunities and ICT and AI bring some of the biggest opportunities.”

Liu also acknowledged the role the European Commission was playing in this field, pointing out that it had taken several “important steps” covering the legal aspects of AI.

His company supports this approach along with efforts to make AI more “affordable” to all.

However, he added a note of caution, warning that delivering on Europe’s strategy for AI cannot be achieved without also tackling the current ICT skills shortage.

He estimated that by 2020 there will be no fewer than 500,000 vacancies in Europe for ICT professionals.

This was a key issue, which he said Huawei was currently addressing with the various apprenticeship and training programmes it operates both in Europe and China.

This involves, for example, offering European ICT students the chance to gain invaluable relevant experience and training in China.

His concluding message was that “close collaboration” in the ICT and AI sphere will be key to driving Europe’s competitiveness in the coming years.

The Third Academia Salon follows the launch of the first event in London in 2016. It aims to bring leading academics from outside the normal Brussels ‘bubble’ together with EU policymakers and industry representatives.

Topics under discussion included the important role of research, entrepreneurs and SMEs.

Liu’s comments were partly echoed by Antti Peltomäki, deputy director general of the Commission’s DG GROW and another keynote speaker in the opening session.

In a discussion moderated by Paul Adamson, chairman of Forum Europe, the EU official conceded that currently the EU was “well behind” both the United States and Asia when it comes to investment in artificial intelligence.

In 2016, he said that the EU’s investment of €3bn in AI is one third of that of Asia and one fifth that of the US.

He told the audience, “The challenge for the next European commission when it comes into office next year is to address this issue.”

The aim, he noted, was to increase investment to €20bn per year over the next 20 years.

The EU’s new Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe programmes will, he suggested, play a key role in delivering this objective and also to improving access to finance for companies looking to invest in ICT and AI. In answer to a question on this issue, Peltomäki said the aim was to create “more user-friendly” ways of accessing finance.

He also accepted there was currently a “huge demand” for ICT/AI skills but there was a worrying shortage of relevant talent.

Another issue raised was that of ethnics and AI and, on this, Peltomäki said there was a need to “balance” technological developments and “values.”

While this was a cause for concern with some, he believes the EU with its policy instruments has the “experience” to achieve such a balance.

In doing so, it can provide the necessary “safeguards and guarantees,” he told the conference.

The event also gave a chance to showcase the talents of 40 students from all over Europe who participated in Huawei’s ICT training programme, “Seeds for the Future.”

Their studies included a two-week trip to Huawei headquarters and research facilities in China.

They presented a report on improving mobility, influenced by their Chinese experience and also visited the EU institutions the day before the Academia Salon.

Read the most recent articles written by Martin Banks - New EU regulations on AI seek to ban mass and indiscriminate surveillance