Who will win the AI ‘arms race’?

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An important global competition is under way that will determine the fate of many nations. By this, I am referring to the global artificial intelligence (AI) ‘arms race’ which has seen countries battle to develop the next generation of intelligent technologies.

As it stands, two clear leaders – the United States and China – have been embroiled in an intensifying race to dominate various areas of next-generation technology. The US currently leads in many aspects of AI, having underlined its intention to make AI a national priority. 

In 2019, President Donald Trump signed an executive order announcing the American AI Initiative, which aims to promote national AI technology and innovation. The Initiative directs the Federal government to pursue five pillars for advancing AI, chief amongst which are investing in R&D, unleashing resources and removing barriers to innovation.

China is closest at its tail, quickly gaining ground by betting on, and investing in, AI on a scale that no other country can match. In 2017, China laid out a three-step roadmap to become the world leader in AI by 2030. It hopes to make the industry worth 1 trillion yuan, or $147.7 billion, within the next decade.

The global race is on. But where does Europe stand in comparison?

Too much of a good thing

The importance of government involvement cannot be overstated – not only does it lay the groundwork for infrastructure and regulation, but it also encourages private investment. To highlight this point, the US drew in 56% of all global AI investments over the past five years; in total, American companies raised £32 billion from 2015 to 2019. China was second in terms of AI funding, with £12 billion.

Despite having access to a wide pool of home-grown talent, Europe trails behind its rivals in this area. Despite enjoying a strong tech startup community (according to McKinsey, Europe is home to approximately 25% of the world’s AI startups and boasts close to six million professional developers), its progress is threatened by a distinct funding gap and increasing restrictions on R&D.

The EU bloc’s attitude regarding regulating technological innovation is well-intentioned, yet it risks stifling the future creation and deployment of innovative new toolsets. The pilot of ethical AI guidelines released by the European Commission in April 2019 provides a useful example. The Guidelines outline a framework for achieving trustworthy AI and operationalise the requirements to achieve this goal. Specifically, seven requirements (amongst which are transparency and accountability) must be met to ensure AI is trustworthy.

The burden on technologists is high. As with all new technologies, there is an element of risk involved – particularly in the initial stages of development. We must ensure that researchers are not put off pursuing ambitious new projects by overly restrictive regulations.

This difficulty is compounded by the fact that these regulations are ambiguous. A European Commission white paper recommends a risk-based approach to ensure regulatory intervention is proportionate; however, the definition of ‘high-risk’ is yet to be defined. This adds to confusion and only serves to deter or delay investment if AI products and services are feared to fall under this umbrella term.

Regulation is, undoubtedly, a good thing. Too much of it, however, risks causing more damage than it prevents. We must ensure that citizens’ rights are protected whilst also ensuring that technologists’ own needs are being met in the pursuit of valuable new solutions.

What’s at stake?

It is difficult to over-exaggerate the benefits of AI on a societal scale. Indeed, the victors of this so-called ‘arms race’ will benefit from huge economic and political advantages.

McKinsey estimates that on average, AI could boost growth in European economic activity by close to 20% by 2030 – adding €2.7 trillion to its combined output. This is if it continues on its current trajectory. However, if Europe bolsters its efforts and makes strides to sufficiently catch up with the US AI frontier, this figure could be revised upwards to €3.6 trillion.

There are huge gains to be had by citizens, too. Greater integration of AI within the labour market will allow professionals to divert mindless and time-consuming tasks to intelligent machines. This saved time can then instead be spent on more rewarding and value-adding tasks.

Our public services could also do with a boost from AI. By better utilising data, organisations like the National Health Service (NHS) will increase their capacity for problem-solving and ultimately deliver better services. Not only will new toolsets reduce the burden on the system by taking on responsibilities that can be converted into data and algorithms, but they will also improve patient outcomes and allow clinicians to focus on parts of the job where they can add the most value for their patients.

Europe cannot afford to rest on its laurels. If used wisely, AI technologies have the potential to improve the quality of life of citizens and offer countries a competitive advantage. I have every faith that Europe can catch up to the AI frontiers of its competitors, but it must double down on its efforts and pave an effective way forward through better collaboration between citizens, organisations and governments.