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Over 2,000 European AI experts join hands to challenge US, China in artificial intelligence

More than 2,000 researchers join forces to urge EU to help continent build ‘Google-style’ infrastructure as counterweight to the two leading AI players

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 September, 2018, 2:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 September, 2018, 12:59pm

More than 2,000 European AI experts have come together to collaborate on research and call for large-scale funding from the European Union to counter China and America’s rapid progress in the field.

“European artificial intelligence is at a crossroads given the huge investments in the technology in the United States and China,” said the Confederation of Laboratories for Artificial Intelligence Research in Europe (Claire), which met for the first time in Brussels last week.

The alliance urges the European Commission to implement an AI strategy for the EU as a whole along the lines of the US National AI Research and Development Plan that was released in late 2016, and China’s Next Generation AI Development Plan that was issued the following year.

Some 2,100 AI researchers from 29 countries across the continent have already signed up, according to Philipp Slusallek, scientific director of the German Research Centre for Artificial Intelligence Research and one of Claire’s three initiators.

He said one of the main goals of the collaboration was to nurture AI talent and retain it in Europe.

This could be accomplished by setting up dedicated AI research and development centres throughout the continent, which would provide “Google-scale” infrastructure such as computing power and data centres, he said.

“There is a lot of investment in China and the US into AI. Europe got a little bit lagged behind,” Slusallek said. “[But] Europe has a very strong tradition in AI and was also among the leaders in AI in the past.”

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The science has its roots in the work of the renowned British scientist Alan Turing who began studying how machines could think in the 1950s.

In recent years some major exponents of the field such as Yann LeCun, founder of Facebook’s AI Research lab, and Google Brain’s Geoffrey Hinton were born and educated in European countries but moved to North America to continue their work.

AI leadership had in recent years become a two-horse race between China and the US, said Anthony Mullen, director of research at advisory firm Gartner.

At the European Conference on Computer Vision – a top AI academic meeting – held in Munich, Germany, last week, China ranked first in terms of accepted academic papers.

“Even if you combine [each European countries’ accepted academic papers], it still won’t be among the very top,” Slusallek said. “This is what we want to change – to conduct much better research and make more contributions at such conferences.”

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Funding at the EU level is key to developing AI technology in Europe, as research in the field is not driven by the private sector there to the same extent that it is in China and the US, the alliance said.

Europe spent about US$4 billion on AI research in 2016 while China spent US$7 billion, according to a report by McKinsey Global Institute last year. But this was dwarfed by the figure for North America which was estimated to be about US$23 billion.

“While Europe has many AI and next-generation start-ups, with vibrant ecosystems in the making in cities including Amsterdam, Barcelona and Stockholm, there is still considerable scope to support the development of these companies in terms of incentives and access to capital,” said James Manyika, chairman and director of McKinsey Global Institute.

“Governments can act as a platform facilitator for many AI innovation and scaling experiments, as Britain has been doing in health care.”

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AI could contribute up to US$15.8 trillion to the global economy by 2030, more than the current output of China and India combined, according to a PwC report last year.

China and North America are poised to benefit the most from AI in 2030, gaining an additional US$7 trillion and US$3.7 trillion, or 26 per cent and 15 per cent of gross domestic product, respectively.

For Europe, the gain was estimated at US$2.5 trillion, about 10 per cent of GDP.