Artificial intelligence: Commission must think small first

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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The European Commission will this week present its proposal on Artificial Intelligence (AI), seen as a step toward a new regulatory framework, promised by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in her State of the Union, writes Marie-Françoise Gondard-Argenti.

Marie-Françoise Gondard-Argenti is a member of the Employers’ Group at the European Economic and Social Committee.

It is clear that there is no country or company manager in Europe at the moment that does not support the development of a trustworthy and innovative AI ecosystem, which promotes a human-centric approach and that primarily services people, increasing their well-being.

There is no company in Europe that does not understand the need to leverage the EU market to spread the EU’s approach to AI regulation globally.

However, at the moment, the EU lags behind. According to a recent study, the United States leads, with an overall score of 44.6 points on a 100-point scale, followed by China with 32 and the European Union with 23.3.

If we want to catch up on the AI race in all economic sectors we must forge policies and initiatives that work Micro, Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (MSMEs), the backbone of the EU economy.

From the first findings of a study to be published in June by the Employers’ Group of the European Economic and Social Committee, it emerges that the diversity and the potential of limitless AI applications come so far with a number of complex economic and societal threats, particularly for Europe’s smallest enterprises, which should not be overlooked.

The challenges that MSMEs encounter on their journey towards an AI-enabled business are disruptive, whether they are linked to the lack of skills among existing technical staff, or lack of awareness around AI benefits by company management or missing or inaccessible data.

Likewise, the external market conditions, such as too restrictive or too broad legal frameworks, can hamper the successful adoption of AI technologies by MSMEs.

So, it is imperative for policy-makers to think small first and formulate policies tailored towards MSMEs that can be adopted also by large enterprises.

Because a growing number of businesses and citizens unknowingly rely on AI-driven solutions to enhance their work and life, we need to make it easier for all companies to use these innovative technologies and to maintain their competitive advantage.

Effective key actions that could boost AI uptake in SMEs start with supporting education and training systems to ensure all new skills demanded by the labour market are acquired and general knowledge on AI is gained, enabling civil society members to be responsible and informed users of AI devices and applications.

Of course, specific applications are quite sector-dependent. Industries that are labour intensive, such as agriculture and construction, benefit from robotisation and automation, which corresponds with the increased safety of workers.

AI-driven applications can support or take over rather mundane tasks associated with information processing in document-rich sectors such as the liberal professions, accounting and legal services.

Within the healthcare sector – a high priority within the EU due to the ageing population and shortage of healthcare professionals – AI has the potential to drive major change and enable efficiencies in patient management, new procedures, better treatments, and potentially also predictive medicine and reductions in the expenditure of social budgets.

We also have to make sure that SMEs have a targeted support system from finance and infrastructure to data availability and interoperability, allowing for a successful AI adoption.

Providing guidance on best practices, promote success stories, and share experiences can also serve as a starting point for a broad AI uptake among MSMEs.

In a nutshell, we must improve the coordination and synergies of policy instruments and initiatives to overcome the communication gap, not least on issues like cybersecurity and the potential impact of data bias.

But also decrease regulatory requirements and propose policies that enable easy adoption into SMEs business practice as well as create a business-friendly environment that allows the freedom to develop AI applications.

The EU should by all means foster a pan-European approach and tailor policies to the current needs of member states. That would not only stimulate the single market but let the EU gain growth in the global AI race.

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