The European Commission has taken the wraps off its highly ambitious ‘digital strategy’ for EU member states over the next five years.

Its digital strategy seeks to encompass tech subjects such as artificial intelligence (AI), broadband, and data collection/sharing, as Europe seeks ways to take back control from American firms such as Google, Facebook and Amazon, as well as Asian rivals.

Despite the EU lacking its own homegrown digital giants, Europe is seeking to impose its own lofty rules that will see European businesses and tech firms engage in a ‘single market” so they can trade data.

Boom or Bust? Brexit and the Tech Sector

Digital strategy

“Today, the Commission unveils its ideas and actions for a digital transformation that works for all, reflecting the best of Europe: open, fair, diverse, democratic and confident,” it announced.

“It presents a European society powered by digital solutions that put people first, opens up new opportunities for businesses, and boosts the development of trustworthy technology to foster an open and democratic society and a vibrant and sustainable economy.”

The strategy calls for Europe to be a “trusted digital leader”, that will see the EU seeks to create “technology that works for people”; as well as a “fair and competitive economy; and “an open, democratic and sustainable society.”

The EC has also published a White Paper, in which the Commission “envisages a framework for trustworthy Artificial Intelligence, based on excellence and trust.”

But it is perhaps the efforts to make Europe a leader in the data economy that seems to be the central thrust of the strategy.

Data leader?

“Europe has everything it takes to become a leader in this new data economy: the strongest industrial base of the world, with SMEs being a vital part of the industrial fabric; the technologies; the skills; and now also a clear vision,” it boasted.

“The objective of the European data strategy is to make sure the EU becomes a role model and a leader for a society empowered by data,” it said. “For this, it aims at setting up a true European data space, a single market for data, to unlock unused data, allowing it to flow freely within the European Union and across sectors for the benefit of businesses, researchers and public administrations.”

Quite what this means in practice remains to be seen, but for now the Commission will propose to establish the right regulatory framework regarding data governance, access and reuse between businesses, between businesses and government, and within administrations.

“This entails creating incentives for data sharing, establishing practical, fair and clear rules on data access and use, which comply with European values and rights such as personal data protection, consumer protection and competition rules,” it said. “It also means to make public sector data more widely available by opening up high-value datasets across the EU and allowing their reuse to innovate on top.

Secondly the Commission aims at “supporting the development of the technological systems and the next generation of infrastructures, which will enable the EU and all the actors to grasp the opportunities of the data economy.”

And finally it will “launch sectoral specific actions, to build European data spaces in for instance industrial manufacturing, the green deal, mobility or health.”

The Commission said it will also work to further narrow the digital skills gap in Europe.

“Today we are presenting our ambition to shape Europe’s digital future,” said the President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. “It covers everything from cybersecurity to critical infrastructures, digital education to skills, democracy to media. I want that digital Europe reflects the best of Europe – open, fair, diverse, democratic, and confident.”

This sentiment was echoed by commissioner for internal market,Thierry Breton.

“Our society is generating a huge wave of industrial and public data, which will transform the way we produce, consume and live,” Breton said. “I want European businesses and our many SMEs to access this data and create value for Europeans – including by developing Artificial Intelligence applications. Europe has everything it takes to lead the ‘big data’ race, and preserve its technological sovereignty, industrial leadership and economic competitiveness to the benefit of European consumers.”

Whether Europe is able to regain control of people’s data and build on these lofty ambitions remains to be seen.

Trustworthy AI

But the Commission focus on creating “trustworth artificial intelligence” has triggered reaction from experts in the tech industry.

“Getting regulation right around a fast-changing, very powerful emerging technology is not easy and the Commission’s horizontal, one-size-fits-all approach is very ambitious,” noted John Buyers, head of international AI at Osborne Clarke LLP. ” A lot of industries will be concerned that the right balance has been struck between enabling a vibrant European market in these new technologies and protecting the rights of EU citizens.”

“For post-Brexit UK, this initiative is highly significant – we know that the government is actively considering regulatory divergence where it would serve UK interests,” said Buyers. “Data and AI are areas where we can’t assume the UK will opt will go for alignment. So this White Paper sets a clear threshold for UK regulatory bodies to work with in deciding the right direction for the UK AI industry. Which direction are we going to take? The decision could prove to be highly determinative.”

Another expert agreed that the pace of AI means that some form of regulation is needed, but doing so will be a tough task.

“AI is moving at such a pace that we need to regulate it before it gets out of control,” said Jake Moore, cybersecurity specialist at ESET. “However, one of the major issues is that when creating AI there is a huge input by humans, and humans are naturally prone to having all sorts of bias.”

“Machine learning, which is at the heart of AI, includes external factors such as opinions and feelings which all help influence the decision makers,” said Moore. “AI and machine learning data is only as good as the data you feed it, so the regulation of this needs to start at the earliest stages. There will no doubt be teething issues.”

“Deepfakes are arguably one of the biggest cyber security risks of tomorrow, so they must be looked at today,” said Moore. “That being said, awareness is sometimes more powerful than protection. Regulation, however, will be extremely difficult to follow through with, especially as much of this won’t be relevant to the rest of the world.”

Another expert noted this is an opportunity for the EU to create the right regulatory framework for AI.

“This consultation is a significant opportunity for the EU to understand how it can address the legislative holes and barriers around AI,” said Georgina Kon, TMT partner at Linklaters. “It demonstrates the keenness of legislators to build the right framework for trusted AI – recognising the huge benefits it may bring, as well as the huge risk.”

If the EU gets this right, it will be instrumental in unlocking the potential of AI and becoming the benchmark for what good AI regulation looks like on a global scale, encouraging both significant innovation and investment in Europe,” said Kon.

“Some may say this plan to build a trusted ecosystem for AI is long overdue, but you can see from the paper perhaps why this has taken so long,” said Kon. “There is a huge mesh of legislation that impacts – and could impact – AI, and a broad set of regulators that admit they haven’t got the right skills in-house to regulate the use of AI. There are also some legislative holes that need filling.”

Another expert noted this AI whitepaper could help businesses realise the benefits of AI, which for a long period as been touted as a magic bullet for their needs.

“By choosing to focus their new AI rules on ethics and transparency, the EU is positioning its AI vision in a way that can help a broad range of established businesses rather than just start-ups, while differentiating itself from the approaches of the US and China,” said Dr Bob De Caux, VP – AI and RPA at IFS.

“Many European SMEs in industries such as manufacturing have had difficulty in scaling AI, not due to a lack of cutting edge innovation, but due to the change in mindset and processes required to fully embrace a new approach,” said Dr Caux. “While it is true that a trust-based approach is more of a narrative than a business model, it is crucial to these businesses overcoming some of the misapprehensions and hype around AI that have built up over the past few years, and demonstrating that although it is not a magic bullet, it can drive real value when implemented properly.”

“In addition, concentrating on transparency does not have to be an innovation killer,” said Dr Caux. “Black box approaches such as deep learning are not always appropriate or even necessary for many of the problems facing businesses, so it is encouraging to see a focus on research combining machine learning algorithms with more classic symbolic, human-understandable approaches, which will be very important in industries requiring human oversight such as healthcare.”

Tom Jowitt @TJowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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