Artificial Intelligence – assisting Europe’s recovery from COVID-19

The Innovation Platform spoke to DIGITALEUROPE’s Director General, Cecilia Bonefeld-Dahl, about Artificial Intelligence’s (AI) role in assisting Europe’s recovery from COVID-19.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is just one of a plethora of skills in the digital toolbox which stands to have a profound impact on the future of the everyday lives of citizens. But with great power comes great responsibility, and Europe is already a world leader both in terms of ensuring that AI is ethical and human centric, as well as in terms of technological development.

However, support is needed if Europe is to maintain this position and, moreover, if digital is to be able to fulfil its potential in helping to achieve Europe’s green goals and, indeed, in helping to overcome some of the societal challenges expected to result from the COVID-19 pandemic.

With these challenges and opportunities in mind, The Innovation Platform spoke to DIGITALEUROPE’s Director General, Cecilia Bonefeld-Dahl, about potential future action that could build on the solid foundations that Europe has already built in this exciting and innovative area.

Europe's recovery from COVID-19
Cecilia Bonefeld-Dahl

How would you describe Europe’s progress in AI (impacts from COVID-19 notwithstanding)? Are we doing enough to maintain a presence in the sector in comparison to other countries/regions?

I think that Europe is making good progress on AI. Policymakers have finally come to see it as a priority area for Europe’s digital advancement, and the European Commission is currently working on defining the conditions for AI to thrive. DIGITALEUROPE has played a pivotal role in this process as a member of the High Level Expert Group on AI, whose sectoral considerations were published on 23 July. On 17 July, we also published a ground-breaking assessment list for businesses, which we think should be used as a model not just for AI firms but governments too.

On the other hand, we need to do much more to fulfil our potential, in comparison to what other countries and regions are doing. This is particularly true for smaller companies. For example, only 10% of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are currently making use of Big Data. We need to encourage more SMEs to use AI by giving them access to talent and know-how from larger firms and universities, as well as boosting our digital infrastructure and connectivity.

AI is a huge opportunity for Europe. According to a study by McKinsey, it could add €3.6 trillion to the EU economic growth by 2030. I don’t think we can afford to underestimate this figure, especially as we face a potential economic recession.

At the European level, the ‘co-ordinated plan on Artificial Intelligence (AI)’ aims at ensuring complementarity and synergies between national and EU level actions to maximise impact and spread the benefits of AI across Europe.’ What are your thoughts on the stage of development of national strategies (or the lack thereof)? How difficult will it be for the EU to tie into and compliment the work taking place in Member States? Are we seeing more countries now coming to realise the importance of AI (and digital generally) for the future?

There is no question that better co-ordination across Europe is needed. Take research, for example. Europe cannot develop AI excellence if it does not invest in R&D. We need to better co-ordinate academia and industry in order to maximise creativity, innovation, and risk-taking. This requires efforts both from the EU – in the form of targeted funds and programmes – and national governments – in their investment plans for education, SMEs, and regional development.

The EU recovery package and long-term budget are crucial here. Digital must be front and centre in all of our spending plans if we want to make the most of AI, as we have told the EU Council and the national leaders in a recent letter.

Now that leaders at the European Council have found an agreement, it is up to the Member States to prioritise digital projects in sectoral investments, from regional funds, to healthcare, to education. To this end, at least 15% across all MFF programmes as well as national spending from the recovery package should be earmarked for the digital transformation if we are serious about achieving our green goals and boosting the competitiveness of European industry.

Europe's recovery from COVID-19
© iStock/metamorworks

The High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence (AI HLEG), of which you were a part, were responsible for developing Ethics Guidelines on Artificial Intelligence as well as delivering policy recommendations. What would you say were the most important elements here? And how important are concepts such as ‘human-centric AI’ and ‘ethics by design’?

Of course, these are crucial elements. As with any technology, we need to align the use and application of AI with European values and ensure that is compliant with existing regulation, law, and fundamental rights. This also means that organisations, public and private, need to have the right level of transparency and accountability.

The complexity is more in define how to do that, because it requires very different solutions based on the situation and the specific use or role of AI in the process. But this is not a completely new challenge either. It is important here to first look at the tools we already have. One thing I do not tire of pointing out is that when it comes to AI, Europeans are better protected than citizens anywhere else in the world. We have world-beating data protection rules on top of decades’ worth of consumer protection and health and safety legislation, as well as fundamental rights protecting us from discrimination and harm.

It goes without saying that our focus should be to ensure compliance and enforcement, rather than duplicating and complicating things with an extra layer of bureaucracy. And if deciding on any new legislation, we should have a laser-like focus on the few areas where we need something extra.

What progress has been made towards a stronger digital Europe since we last spoke in March last year?

It is undeniable that the COVID-19 pandemic has made us take a digital leap we had never seen before, but I think this only accelerated a trend that already existed. This is evident in areas such as Internet use, e-commerce, or online banking.

In contrast, you would think that digital skills and online learning would be top of the agenda. Sadly, only 22% of European enterprises provide ICT training to their staff, while only 11% of Europeans completed a course online in 2019, according to the Commission’s DESI.

What the pandemic has left very clear, though, is that we cannot afford to underestimate the role of digital in our recovery – especially if we take into account our climate goals. The Commission’s roadmap for this year and next is quite ambitious, tackling many important areas from a renewed Skills Agenda to AI to the data economy.

What we want to make clear on our side is that a lot of innovation is already happening on the ground, from e-health to smart cities to digital manufacturing. But we need to take these ideas and give them the resources they need to be scaled and implemented in a pan-European, cross-border perspective. This is the missing piece of the puzzle.

Europe's recovery from COVID-19
© iStock/Erikona

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, you have called for decisive action from the EU to guarantee structural funds and to establish pan-European initiatives and programmes focused on equipping European citizens with the digital skills they need. Why is this so important, and how can the shortfall in digital skills be addressed moving forwards?

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the dire need to equip large parts of the workforce with the skills they need in an evolving technology landscape. I think it is now abundantly clear that a strong digital skillset is not – and has never been – a ‘nice-to-have’; it is a fundamental tool for European citizens not only to perform crucial jobs, but to fully participate in the democratic process, as we have seen with recent elections and misinformation campaigns.

I therefore believe that we need a re-skilling revolution, and the COVID recovery package and EU budget could play a huge role. Let’s not forget the scale of this challenge – more than a quarter of the workforce will need to be retrained over the next five years, as a McKinsey study found.

The way we see it at DIGITALEUROPE is twofold: we need to address the digital divide both in the workplace – especially in the manufacturing industry to relaunch and maintain Europe’s excellence – and in schools.

On the one hand, we need a digital-first Pact for Skills aimed at filling skill shortages and equipping workers with a range of digital skills including coding, data-driven production systems, robotics, and artificial intelligence. The EU budget must clearly reflect this priority by guaranteeing structural funds to flexible reskilling and upskilling programmes.

On the other hand, we need to modernise education systems for the digital age through a Digital Education Action Plan that makes digital technology a mandatory subject from an early age, including basic coding and AI, as well as deploying EU and national funding to digitally modernise schools.

Cecilia Bonefeld-Dahl
Director General
+32 2 609 53 10

Please note, this article will also appear in the third edition of our new quarterly publication.

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