Brussels to EU28 – give us €20 billion to play AI catch-up

The European Commission (EC) wants European Union (EU) member states to commit at least €20 billion over the next four years in order to play catch-up in the global AI market.

Earlier this month, 24 EU states plus Norway signed a Declaration of Co-operation on AI. The EU signatories were Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the UK.

Today the next step on from that emerged in the form of a Communication on Artificial Intelligence for Europe from the Commission, announcing plans for a three-pronged approach to AI, spanning increased public and private investment; preparation for socio-economic changes, and development of an “appropriate” ethical and legal framework.

With the Commission itself chucking in an additional €2.5 billion of funding from existing public-private partnerships, Vice-President for the Digital Single Market Andrus Ansip said:

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.

The Commission says it will also:

  • Support the development of an “AI-on-demand platform” that will provide access to relevant AI resources in the EU for all users.
  • Support business-education partnerships to attract and keep more AI talent in Europe.
  • Set up dedicated training schemes with financial support from the European Social Fund.
  • Support digital skills, competencies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), entrepreneurship and creativity.
  • Present ethical guidelines on AI development by the end of 2018, based on the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, taking into account principles such as data protection and transparency.
  • Bring together all relevant stakeholders in a European AI Alliance.


To prevent a brain drain, the Commission wants to address educational and skills-centric aspects of the AI industry, stating in its Communication:

Europeans should have every opportunity to acquire the skills and knowledge they need and to master new technology. National schemes are essential for providing such up-skilling and training. They can benefit from support by the European Structural and Investment Funds(supporting skills development with €27 billion over the period 2014-2020, out of which the European Social Fund invests €2.3 billion specifically in digital skills) and should also benefit from support from the private sector.

The Digital Opportunity traineeship initiative will provide cross-border traineeships for up to 6,000 students and recent graduates as of summer 2018. It will give students of all disciplines the opportunity to get hands-on digital experience within companies, in fields demanded where there is a skills gap, and strengthen their ICT skills, in fields such as AI.

On the emotive topic of AI and ethics, the Commission states:

Draft AI ethics guidelines will be developed on the basis of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, following a large consultation of stakeholders within the AI Alliance. The draft guidelines will build on the statement published by the European Group of Ethics in Science and New Technologies. They will address issues such as the future of work, fairness, safety, social inclusion, algorithmic transparency, and more broadly, will examine the impact on fundamental rights, including privacy, dignity, consumer protection and non-discrimination.

Given the scale of the challenge associated with AI, the full participation of all actors including businesses, academics, consumer organisations, trade unions, policy makers and representatives of civil society is essential. This is why the Commission wants to bring together a broad community of stakeholders around AI-relevant questions under the European AI Alliance. The Alliance will be set up by July 2018, and AI ethics guidelines will be published by the end of the year.

The Commission also intends to issue guidance on the interpretation of the Product Liability Directive by mid-2019 in the light of technological developments, to ensure legal clarity for consumers and producers in case of defective products. The rationale for this is:

In principle, if AI is integrated into a product and a defect can be proven in a product that caused material damage to a person, the producer will be liable to pay compensation.

My take

A co-ordinated approach to AI is of course to be welcomed, although there’s a lot unsaid in this Communication that needs to be answered as the devil will be in the detail, particularly when it comes to who’s expected to cough up the €20 billion. The information released by the Commission today is considerably less detailed than the UK House of Lords report on AI strategy last week.

The 2020 end goal takes in the current timetable for the UK’s Brexit, which as it stands comes complete with withdrawal from the Digital Single Market. Beyond Brexit, participation in such pan-European tech programs has been a bone of contention between Britain and Brussels.

More information will emerge over time of course, but as things stand, let’s recognize this Communication as a welcome statement of intent, but not get too excited about its outcomes just yet.


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