Artificial Intelligence (AI) is increasingly on the radar of EU policymakers – not surprising, given the technology’s potential to enhance the competitiveness of European industry while delivering significant societal benefits. But what steps can decision makers take to fully tap into the opportunities on offer?
Malte Lohan is the Director General of Orgalime – the European Engineering Industries Association
Artificial intelligence has long been a source of optimism and scepticism in equal measure. But with real-world applications of AI on the rise, debate on the policy framework is ramping up in Brussels and beyond. Following calls from the European Council to set out an EU approach, the Commission has just announced a three-pronged initiative focused on strengthening investment, preparing for socio-economic changes and ensuring the right ethical and legal framework. This reflects growing recognition among policymakers that AI will be a central pillar of Europe’s future competitiveness. However, public opinion continues to be marked by a degree of unease, underpinned in part by predictions that owe more to science fiction than the facts of the current reality.
What does this reality look like? AI has been playing an integral role in the digitisation of European industry – and will undoubtedly be crucial to our companies’ continued competitiveness. Embedded AI is widely in use today, deployed across manufacturing processes to perform specific tasks according to a programmed purpose. And already, it is delivering significant efficiency gains across value chains. More broadly, embedded AI is fuelling technology solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing European society: AI can help make energy grids smarter, mobility greener, healthcare more targeted and precise.
European firms are at the vanguard of AI development internationally: particularly when it comes to embedded applications, our engineering and tech industry has carved out a highly competitive niche on the global stage. The growing reach of AI presents a unique opportunity for the EU to build on these strengths while maximising the societal benefits for its citizens. But to fully unlock this potential, it will be crucial to ensure the right framework across the EU – a framework that will promote Europe’s global leadership in AI at a technical, economic, legal and ethical level.
The Commission’s initiative is a welcome indication that EU policymakers share this ambition. To help make it a reality, Europe’s engineering and technology industry are putting forward five key recommendations for the road ahead:
1. Establish clear definitions
Two people using the term ‘AI’ can often be talking about two completely different things. At one end of the spectrum is the kind of ‘super AI’ that still belongs firmly in the realm of science fiction. On the other hand, ‘narrow AI’ – already used widely and successfully in industry – describes intelligence programmed by human developers to allow machines to perform a specific purpose. Establishing clear definitions is an essential prerequisite to any meaningful debate about AI, and EU policymakers have a role to play in promoting terminology that reflects how the technology is being used in reality.
2. Promote investment now
The global race for AI leadership has already begun: the US and China have been quick off the starting blocks, and Europe cannot afford to fall behind. We urgently need a common EU approach. As negotiations on the next EU budget and R&D&I Framework Programme FP9 shift up a gear this year, the time is ripe for an EU AI strategy drawing on all available financial and budgetary instruments – with a focus on capital investment, R&D&I funding, and education and skills development.
3. Don’t rush to regulate
AI is an emerging technology with enormous potential still to be unlocked. But companies will only invest in, innovate and deploy AI-based products and services if they can be sure of legal and regulatory certainty over a predictable timeline. This is why it is so important for policymakers not to make any hurried decisions on a potential revision of the existing EU framework. Especially as the legislation currently in place – built on cornerstones such as the Machinery Directive, the Low Voltage Directive and the Product Liability Directive – is capable of addressing any potential risks to workers, businesses and consumers that could arise from embedded AI applications in use today.
4. Foster a meaningful debate on ethical considerations
Clearly, the debate on AI raises ethical considerations, and these must be taken seriously. EU policymakers have a role to play in creating the preconditions for a meaningful debate on these issues – one that involves all stakeholders, from industry to government to civil society. This debate should be firmly rooted in foreseeable realities, not speculative future scenarios. If Europe is to take full advantage of AI, there must be a shared belief across society that ethical issues are reflected in all key discussions.
5. Show the benefits of AI
When it comes to society’s views on AI, a mixed picture emerges. While concerns understandably exist regarding the impact on employment, these are not currently borne out by the data available. We need an open discussion on these social issues and how we can best prepare the workforce for any changes to come. But we also need to focus on the broader benefits of AI, and its potential to help solve societal challenges in areas as diverse as energy, healthcare, mobility, infrastructures, cybersecurity and the circular economy.
It is encouraging to see these priorities reflected to a large extent in the Commission’s proposal for the way forward. With the right combination of investment in R&D&I, an open and inclusive dialogue on societal impacts, and a sensible approach to regulation that does not stifle innovation, the EU will be well-placed to become the global leader in AI – strengthening the competitiveness of Europe’s industry while maximising the benefits for our citizens.