This is Europe’s opportunity to level-up in the global tech race.
Walking down the Uffizi street (Piazzale degli Uffizi) in Florence would make any European scientist or engineer proud of her/his heritage. This street is full of statues from the likes of Da Vinci to Michelangelo and Galileo, one next to the other. It symbolises one single thing: Florence was the silicon valley of the renaissance, shaping scientific history for decades or centuries. Moreover, these masterminds of science and engineering are accompanied by Dante and Macchiavelli, highlighting the importance of humanities in the same period and at the same place.
In this respect, the modern age of computing has set its roots in Europe but eventually lost the innovation race to other continents, namely the USA. The first electrical computer, the Colossus, was built by Alan Turing in Britain. Although it did help the allies to win the second world war, the concept was adequately commercialised in the USA by Ecler and Mauchly. Similarly, while the Internet originated in the USA, its useful implementation known as the World Wide Web (WWW) was born in Europe by Tim Berners Lee. Even more recently, mobile technology such as GSM was spearheaded by Nordic European Countries. Fun fact: the name of the worldwide renowned brand ‘Nokia’ is the name of a town in Finland.
The sense of European technological pride has diminished over the past decade/s, and the continent looked above to the USA and its tech giants for the way forward in tech. Us European scientists and engineers sought innovation elsewhere, across oceans and continents. Despite the selective funds and initiatives, Europe itself struggled with the competition and did not commit itself to a feasible way forward.
This situation left a vacuum that was quickly filled by the USA and its top companies (Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple) and by China, motivated by its government’s agenda. We have seen significant technological developments being led by other continents.
In recent years, the EU has worked on gaining back some of the lost momenta towards significance in the tech sphere. The most significant effort that started shaping the modern attitude of tech towards users was the GDPR legislation that put a tangible value on the respect towards user private data.
Just last Wednesday, the European Commission announced a white paper that paves the way towards a European regulatory framework of emerging technology, including AI. If the 27-page white paper is too long for you to read, you can help yourself to the press release that sums it up quite nicely.
This vital document acknowledged the fact that as a continent, Europe fell behind in terms of technological innovation. It commits itself to distinguish itself in the technological future of the world. Just like it has done with the GDPR legislation, the EU put its flavour in this whitepaper, pacing technology as “human-centric”. This is a beautiful way of looking at technology. Technology has always been there to make our lives better, and we should safeguard this fundamental principle when building newer and better tech. Quoting this whitepaper, there are three principles at the heart of this strategy:
- Technology that works for people;
- A fair and competitive economy; and
- An open, democratic and sustainable society.
These three seemingly plain points put core European values at the core of such a fast-paced industry. Technology is irrelevant if it is not relevant for the humans that use it. Moreover, it needs to be there to serve and protect the same users and the future of humanity. Various European countries have developed their own national AI strategies over the past few years. I had the privilege to serve in Malta’s AI taskforce, whose National AI strategy was launched in October 2019, affirming the very same values discussed in this article.
Any regulation must strive to achieve this. Through this whitepaper, the EU is also proposing a few billions of Euros towards the realisation of this vision that will get Europe back on track in its technological innovation.
The only challenge that such efforts bring along is the risk of stifling innovation with regulation. This can be avoided with an adequate dialogue with the scientific and academic community in an effort to motivate further research and push the current boundaries of technology. The industry also plays a vital role. Business is the bridge between science and the end-user and it should ensure that feedback flows in both directions. I am personally involved in startups such as Colour my Travel (tourism) and Vestis (fashion-tech). Throughout, we value the importance of user-data while striving to deliver an efficient service that employs the latest technology such as AI.
I strongly encourage anyone with an opinion to give feedback on this whitepaper by the 19th of May 2020. This initiative will shape the technological future of the world and the steps that follow will shape your life and business. A more trustworthy future for AI depends on this effort that each one of us makes…are you joining all this?
Do you have any feedback about any of this? feel free to get in touch!