Future of work and connectivity report

A European approach to artificial intelligence

The European Commission has outlined how Europe intends to deal with artificial intelligence (AI) in the coming years through the release of guides to “excellence” and “trust”, as well as a legal framework for the technology.

In what it is terming the ‘Digital Decade’, the Commission has published its AI package which aims to “turn Europe into the global hub for trustworthy AI”. The package includes guidelines on fostering a European approach to AI, a coordinated plan with member states, and a proposal for the regulation of AI that would adopt harmonised laws across the EU. The Commission says that its aim for a “resilient Europe” is one “where people and businesses benefit from improvements in industry and day-to-day life generated by artificial intelligence”, offering the example of AI being used “to treat diseases and minimise the environmental impact of farming”.

Excellence in AI

The EU’s four steps to excellence in AI, which will “strengthen Europe’s potential to compete globally”, are:

  1. enabling the development and uptake of AI in the EU;
  2. making the EU the place where AI thrives from the lab to the market;
  3. ensuring that AI works for people and is a force for good in society; and
  4. building strategic leadership in high-impact sectors.

The Commission and the member states of the EU published their revised Coordinated Plan on AI in April 2021, which outlined “a vision to accelerate, act, and align priorities with the current European and global AI landscape and bring strategy into action”.

Through the Digital Europe and Horizon Europe programmes, the Commission states that it plans to invest €1 billion per year in AI. Additional investments from the private sector and member states will be mobilised in order to reach an annual investment volume of €20 billion over the course of the current decade. The newly adopted Recovery and Resilience Facility, which entered into force in February 2021, makes €134 billion available for digital investment. The Commission states that this “will be a game-changer, allowing Europe to amplify its ambitions and become a global leader in developing cutting-edge, trustworthy AI”. In 2020, the European Investment Bank reported that a €10 million investment gap in AI was seriously constraining the EU’s ability to impact the global market, with the bloc responsible for just 7 per cent of investment at a time when the US and China were responsible for 80 per cent together, making the news of such investment upscaling a welcome development.

“Through the Digital Europe and Horizon Europe programmes, the Commission states that it plans to invest €1 billion per year in AI. Additional investments from the private sector and member states will be mobilised in order to reach an annual investment volume of €20 billion over the course of the current decade.”

With access to high quality data an essential factor in building high performance, robust AI systems, the Commission points to initiatives such as the EU Cybersecurity Strategy, the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act, and the Data Governance Act as examples that “provide the right infrastructure for building such systems”.

Trust in AI

The Commission has proposed three inter-related legal initiatives in a bid to “help to make Europe a safe and innovation friendly environment for the development of AI”:

  1. European legal framework for AI to address fundamental rights and safety risks specific to the AI systems;
  2. EU rules to address liability issues related to new technologies, including AI systems (last quarter 2021-first quarter 2022); and
  3. Revision of sectoral safety legislation (eg Machinery Regulation, General Product Safety Directive, second quarter 2021).

European proposal for a legal framework on AI

In April 2021, the Commission released its proposal for a legal framework on the regulation of AI, which it described as the first of its kind. The regulation includes a number of provisions intended to promote the development and uptake of AI systems in the EU, with the framework creating a European Artificial Intelligence Board tasked with overseeing and coordinating enforcement. The AI Regulation envisages a two-year period for application following adoption and publication of the final regulation, making it possible that new regulations will apply as early as 2024.

AI systems that deploy subliminal techniques beyond a person’s consciousness to materially distort behaviour in a manner likely to cause harm, exploit age-, physical-, or mental disability-based vulnerabilities, or classify the trustworthiness of people based on their social behaviour are explicitly banned under the regulation. The regulation also states that providers, distributors and manufacturers of high-risk AI systems are obligated to ensure that their projects abide by the regulations.

Ireland

Ireland’s national AI strategy, named AI-Here for Good was published in July 2021, emphasising that “AI is not a technology of the future, it is a technology of the present”. It sets out a high-level direction, seeking to enable Ireland to harness AI as a positive force for transformation. The Strategy outlines three core principles to best embrace the opportunities of AI: adopting a human-centric approach to application of AI; staying open and adaptable to new innovations; and ensuring good governance to build trust and confidence for innovation to flourish.

Within the implementation plan of the Strategy, the Government has pledged to establish an Enterprise Digital Advisory Board to advise and work with Government to drive enterprise adoption of digital technologies, including AI. Additionally, an AI Innovation Hub will also be established, to act as a National First Stop for AI, providing expertise and guidance to enterprises on their AI adoption journey. It will form one of four national-level European Digital Innovation Hubs (EDIHs) which will be established in Ireland as part of the EU-wide network to be launched in May 2021.

The implementation plan states that the Government will appoint an AI ambassador to promote awareness among the public and businesses of the potential that AI offers, serving as a champion of AI as a positive force for the economy and society.

Finally, the Government has pledged to establish a GovTech Delivery Board, which will lead the digital transformation of the public service. The Board will consider AI adoption in the public service as part of its work.

Ireland, the Commission states, has “a wide range of policy initiatives to foster the role and contribution of AI in achieving EU’s climate change objectives”, name-checking various national platforms established by the Irish Centre for High-End Computing (ICHEC) such as SPÉir and the ERDDAP server, along with ICHEC’s various collaborations with public sector organisations such as the National Wind and Solar Energy Forecasts established with Bord na Móna and the INFER project performed with the EPA involving remote sensing of Irish surface water to develop products for improved monitoring of water bodies such as lakes.

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