3rd August 1887 – On this day, while an industrialisation wave is reshaping the western world, the English Parliament just passed its Merchandise Marks Act 1887. From then on, exporting countries must clearly label their product with the today well known “Made in” seal. There was one clear target: Germany, so that British people can be well aware that products they buy are of cheap German quality.
Ironically, history turned to Germany’s advantage, as the “made in Germany” label has now become a mark of assured quality.
AI shouldn’t be thought on national level
Today, Germany faces a new industrial revolution, a digital one: Artificial intelligence, technology well-known for the use of self-learning algorithms in order to enable many innovative use cases such as autonomous vehicles, cancer detection or intelligent conversational interfaces also known as chatbots. With this revolution coming, Germany has not forgotten the “Made-in” episode. When they introduced their AI-strategy to the world last November, they labelled it “AI Made in Germany”. Only this time, it might be the wrong approach. If the quality of German products is beyond doubt, the world’s face has much changed. Advocating for German AI, only a few months before the upcoming European elections, is the wrong message to send.
On the one hand, we have a weight problem: even a strong economic power like Germany will face the impossible challenge of competing alone against industrial giants like China or the United States. Not only are their possibilities much bigger, but they don’t play by the same rules, as the Chinese AI agenda shows with its different data culture.
On the second hand, there is a timing problem. With its national strategy, Germany came quite late into the AI arena — one and a half year after Canada, for example. Moreover, other neighbouring countries with similar ambitions have already taken a stance on AI, like France with its national strategy “AI for Humanity”. This highlights parallels that European countries should commonly embrace instead of rephrasing them in a different language. In fact, when it comes to AI, the EU appears to be the best playground for joining forces.
Towards an AI made in Europe
Before even entering its political or societal dimensions, the first obvious reason for a common AI strategy finds its root in technology. AI is fed by data. Therefore, countries joining forces is the promise of larger and better datasets, enabling better training of these datasets and thus catalysing what it takes for AI to have a solid output. The free flow of non-personal data within the EU and the creation of common European data spaces, as planned for 2019, ‘will aggregate data across Europe and make it available to train AI on a scale‘ at least approaching a Chinese level one single European country would never reach.
This data sharing process should be going hand in hand with a major asset in the elaboration of a consistent and strong AI strategy: academic research. Universities, but also think tanks and other research institutions, should all think global in order to nurture guidelines and build a bridge between technology and industry.
Once the data is freely accessible, exchangeable and re-usable, thinking ‘borderless’ should finally lead to another great possibility of synergy. More playground means more digital test fields, which are an absolute necessity for technological creativity to maturate. One fancy example at this point is the tri-national test field for autonomous vehicles between Germany, France and Luxembourg.
Beyond these technological synergies, there are also strong political arguments for a European AI approach.
First, when it comes to technology and therefore the arrival of AI, European countries share common standards. At the societal level for instance, European peoples share similar expectations – among them the guarantee of strong rules and a continuous respect for data privacy. Knowing this, separate national approaches to AI standards would not make much sense. On the contrary, working together on AI would be enabling the development of an own European way which would let the EU stand out from other industrial giants of this world. In an interview for Wired, French president Emmanuel Macron echoed these concerns: “Europe has not exactly the same collective preferences as US or China. If we want to defend our way to deal with privacy, our collective preference for individual freedom versus technological progress, integrity of human beings and human DNA, if you want to manage your own choice of society, your choice of civilisation, you have to be able to be an acting part of this AI revolution. That’s the condition of having a say in designing and defining the rules of AI.”
European societies share similar privacy concerns, calls for regulations should therefore be addressed on a global rather than national level. Beyond Macron’s statement, the EU itself stands behind this ambition of going its own way – but together: “Pursuing a ‘Chinese’ model is neither possible nor desirable” for Europe, which should rather “emerge as quality brand for AI.” By focusing on the quality of AI, the EU might give its technology the made-in-EU seal that stands for trustworthy and reliable innovation.
Beyond the societal level, the establishment of common standards has much Europeanising potential for the regulatory framework. With the supremacy of European law over national law, European countries should all work together in order to regulate AI with a common jurisdictional frame in mind.
Finally, a huge chance to join forces lies in using the supranational channels of the EU – and to imagine a Common Artificial Intelligence Policy led by the European Commission. With a common policy; EU Member States would use a single budget for AI and play by one commonly agreed set of rules. If European countries could speak with one voice on AI, they would give this global challenge the international dimension it requires.
In order to compete in the worldwide race for AI that already started a while ago, Europe countries will need to address these shared technological and political challenges as one. With one voice and a focus on what makes the core essence of its people, Europe “could emerge as a quality brand for AI.”
AI as perfect playground for refreshing the European spirit
The exceptional nature of the debate around AI also means it could impact emerging definitions of a European identity. In many ways, the integration of AI in our societies will be a deeply ethical debate about our digital twin. AI brings many social issues to the centre stage, such as privacy, freedom, the relationship between human and machine, and what rules we might need in order to build on this relationship. AI will also affect our daily lives, the way we take care of the elderly or even the work we are doing, as many automatised tasks might soon be given to such technology.
Finland is a truly inspirational example of how a country can build a bridge between its AI strategy and a participatory process. Indeed, the University of Helsinki and the technology company Reaktor launched an online course “The elements of Artificial Intelligence” which was met with great enthusiasm, both at national and international levels. More than 130 000 people have signed up for the course so far. Finland triggered a people-near debate on all key dimensions of AI (technological, societal, political, industrial) while opening up the AI game to all kinds of interested people.
If the EU succeeds in addressing this debate properly, then much more than a discussion about our industrial strategies could emerge. The emergence of AI offers a concrete chance to redefine the social contract 4.0 we failed to address in the early stages of the Internet. Crucially, it is still possible to address this at the European level, which unites us in our core values of freedom, progress and rights.