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The Geopolitics of Artificial Intelligence

By 2022, AI will have created 133 million new jobs but wiped out another 75 million. We need an ethics of AI. Europe is leading the way.

by Pier Luigi Dal Pino
04 November 2019
13 min read
byPier Luigi Dal Pino
04 November 2019
13 min read

Read WE 44 "Rethinking Energy"

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is profoundly changing all aspects of daily life. Ever since its inception in the 1950s—a period when Alan Turing published an article entitled “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” considered by many to be the manifesto of AI—it has set itself ambitious goals and has achieved significant results, revolutionizing the way we live and work and improving efficiency in all spheres. Thanks to fruitful research carried out in this field in areas including artificial vision, understanding of natural language, decision support systems, and robotics, the potential benefits of AI are now evident. Consider, for example, the support systems that allow more informed decisions to be made in various areas; voice-assisted digital assistants; systems to assist the elderly; self-driving cars; automated drones for parcel delivery; machine learning algorithms used in precision medicine; not to mention cybersecurity and crypto-currency applications; automatic fraud detection systems; and factory automated production processes. From start-ups to established companies, from public administration to individual consumers, AI and cloud computing are transforming the business fabric at an unprecedented speed, albeit at different rates around the globe. It is hard now to imagine a segment of society that will not be transformed in the coming years by these new technologies.

The world of work will also see important changes globally in terms of reorganization, with tasks rather than roles being gradually assigned to machines and people, balancing the need to automate work with that of enhancing workers’ capabilities. A recent report by the World Economic Forum (WEF), for example, predicts that by 2022, AI will have created 133 million new jobs but also wiped out 75 million. The net result is positive, as long as AI is appropriately channeled.

The potential and actual applications of AI have created a stage for true international competition: AI is and will be the quintessence of state domination, for at least three reasons: economic opportunity (think of the quantity and scope of potential applications); “digital” opportunity (AI works on a huge amount of data and information and allows the benefits of the ongoing digital transformation to be fully grasped); social opportunity (the ability to affect people’s daily lives from the highest systems). If managed wisely and if pursued for the benefit of society as a whole, these opportunities have the unprecedented potential to improve people’s lives and economic productivity. While the United States and China are benefiting from the digital industry—highly developed in these two countries—the European context remains more fragmented and, despite the advances made in terms of AI ethics, it lacks a clear strategy for coordinating and structuring the ecosystem.

The US is not relinquishing its title

The US is currently the main player in the field of artificial intelligence, strong on investments and research led by private operators for several decades: not only is so-called big tech the fundamental driving force in the field, but the whole start-up ecosystem and the world of research are the fabric of AI development. In fact, the US is the undisputed leader of the ecosystem, with 1,393 start-ups—40 percent of the total number. China is in second place with 383 start-ups (11 percent of the world total) and Israel is third with 362 start-ups (10 percent). However, if we take Europe as a whole, with 769 artificial intelligence start-ups (22 percent of the total), China is knocked out of second place. But no Member State of the EU reaches a true critical mass: the most noteworthy is the United Kingdom, which ranks fourth (245 start-ups), followed by France (seventh with 109 start-ups) and Germany (eighth with 106 start-ups). While Italy is present in the ranking, it is second to last with 22 start-ups.

Noting the preponderance of private sector money going to research and development spending in this field, in May 2018, the White House announced its ambition to preserve its leadership in the AI sector, combining market objectives with the need to protect employment and promote research and development with public funds. This statement was echoed more recently by the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) AI Next program, a two-billion-dollar investment plan aimed at removing the current limitations of AI systems, including, most importantly, their dependence on data, the difficulty of explaining decision-making processes and the inability to understand the context in which decisions are made. In February 2019, Donald Trump launched the American Artificial Intelligence Initiative, focused mainly on strategic sectors such as transport, agriculture and meteorology.

The rapid growth of China

China is well known to have taken a different approach from the US in the field of AI, with a purely state-driven leadership in line with the economic functioning of the country. China has clearly declared its ambition to become the world leader in the field of AI by 2030. China is particularly keen on its Made in China 2025 plan dedicated to the manufacturing sector; the Internet + plan also dedicated to smart manufacturing and innovation; the Robot Industry Development Plan (2016-2020) launched in 2016 to promote the development and dissemination of robotics in industry; and most recently the 2017 New Generation AI Development Plan, with a string of very precise objectives to be achieved by 2025, arriving at market domination by 2030. The plans are very concrete and ambitious and directed at both civil and military applications.

Europe’s original sin

According to a recent paper published by McKinsey, AI initiatives remain very fragmented in Europe, as do the strengths and weaknesses it brings to AI. For example, Ireland tops the European ranking in ICT connectivity, Finland in human capital and the United Kingdom in innovation. This suggests that each EU country should consider the best practices of the others in an attempt to create a more favorable environment for artificial intelligence or bring them together into a single unitary system. Moreover, although the EU is among the geographical areas with the greatest number of active AI players—with 25 percent of the total, second only to the United States (28 percent)—compared with the US, European companies are struggling with the adoption of big data architecture and the most advanced machine learning techniques, both of which underpin AI. Furthermore, at the moment European companies lack pervasiveness of AI and tend to concentrate only on a rather restricted set of technologies and automation, limited to certain business functions. In fact, even in terms of investment in AI, Europe is lagging behind the US and China. The 2.6 bilion euros of investments announced by the European Commission pale in comparison to the investments currently being made by the two world powers in this field. Nevertheless, AI can win Europe pole position in the digital revolution, increasing economic activity by a value of between 2.7 and 3.6 billion euros by 2030, provided that Europe succeeds in improving assets and skills and catches up with the United States. Channeled properly, digital technologies can also act as catalysts for the development of new solutions to the most pressing challenges of our time and the EU’s priorities, such as fighting climate change, treating diseases and improving public safety.

In recent decades, the EU has promoted innovation, establishing global standards for the responsible use of technology, including the General Data Protection Regulation. At the height of the fourth Industrial Revolution, the approach to technology focused on the human being adopted by the EU and based on the values of the individual will be one of Europe’s main strengths. This intention is demonstrated by the work carried out by the group of experts specifically set up by the European Commission to outline key principles, and in the publication, last April, of “Ethics guidelines for trustworthy AI,” a set of principles that constitute the EU’s vision on the subject, but also of the concrete guidelines for the development of AI.

Alongside the two superpowers, industrialized countries like Japan (as early as 2015), South Korea, Canada and emerging economies such as India have adopted national AI plans. In Europe, various national initiatives have already been launched, in particular by Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Portugal, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Italy. This proliferation of national plans has not escaped the attention of the EU institutions, which have decided to strengthen coordination between Member States within the Digitising European Industry program. 

For a technological future centered on the human being

Faced by the rapid development of artificial intelligence globally, we do need to take time to lay the foundations of this disruptive technology and build a set of concrete ethical principles to guide its development. The enunciation of abstract principles needs to be replaced by a strategic vision, an understanding what and how we want artificial intelligence to operate in society.  Just as in politics a strategic vision for the country cannot be dependent on successive elections, AI, given its potential and pervasiveness, needs a solid ethical base with a long-term vision to accompany its rapid development. And this vision needs to be outlined and implemented now, today, so that the AI of tomorrow has a positive impact on society. Globally, this is not an easy task for three reasons: first, because of the different approaches that states are pursuing. In line with the approaches mentioned above, in the United States the ethics are mostly driven by big tech companies, some of which have equipped themselves with principles and internal mechanisms for the ethical evaluation of products and services. In the Chinese state-controlled AI, ethics is not emerging as a priority. The EU is making it a fundamental cornerstone, to the detriment perhaps of greater speed in the definition of an industrial strategy, but in harmony with its own values and its own history. The second reason is purely cultural: as a vision and a set of ethical principles, given the different approaches on the subject, it might be complicated to align different visions worldwide. Finding a minimum common denominator, however, is essential, in light of the global and limitless scope with which AI mechanisms can operate. Finally, it is fundamentally important to make sure that the set of ethical principles outlined can be effectively infused into algorithms created in such a way that they operate according to those guidelines, as well as internal evaluation mechanisms.

All the efforts and dialog currently underway are crucial to ensuring that in the future AI can be a tool that benefits the community, one that allows human capabilities to be amplified and through which society as a whole can be improved. Given its scale and impact, digital transformation cannot ignore the need for digital ethics. We cannot miss the opportunity to guarantee the use of technologies that effectively and responsibly improve people’s lives. Therefore, it is not about what these technologies can do, but what they should do. It is essential to use algorithms capable of enhancing decision-making and forecasting processes in support of human creativity, increasing the ability to make decisions faster by reducing margins of error. Today, more than ever, we need to guarantee that there is a human-centered vision at the heart of this evolution of technology, society and AI, alongside its rapid growth: a vision in which the human being is at the center of the development of digital innovation, supported and not replaced by technologies. A technological future in which humans and machines will increasingly work together, but where human intelligence will govern development without ever losing control. Beyond the different approaches, the international theater will have to take this into account.

Read WE 44 "Rethinking Energy"

The author: Pier Luigi Dal Pino

Pier Luigi Dal Pino For over 17 years has been Managing Director for Institutional and Industrial Relations at Microsoft Italy. From 2001 to 2006 he was at the direction of Southern Europe, in 2015 he was also appointed as responsible for Austria & Italy. Before joining Microsoft, he served as Corporate Affairs Manager at Philip Morris and at Procter & Gamble with the responsibility of marketing communications for Health and Beauty Care sector.