To give one example that’s close to my heart, there’s a project that we’ve been working on in India. When I was a teenager, I used to volunteer to read books to visually impaired people at the National Institute for the Blind. Today, in the same place, our tech labs have created a ‘hearing and seeing’ AI engine that is enabling visually-impaired people to navigate their world in a whole new way. It can read to them, give them verbal descriptions of the people and things around them and in doing so, help them live more independent lives.
By taking the same approaches that commercial organizations are already discovering through AI and applying them to citizen needs, we could achieve real breakthroughs that would grow substantial social capital. To do that, governments need to act on the three key attributes of AI: providing deeper insights and pattern recognition from data; enabling highly targeted outcomes and empowering the automation of processes at a scale that humans simply cannot hope to match. And all three of these are just as applicable to addressing areas like climate change, traffic congestion, pollution and the allocation of public goods as they are to running a business more efficiently and effectively.
Those were some of the issues that we discussed at a recent Politico Summit, held in Brussels, which I attended in March. As the Summit took place just before GDPR legislation was set to come into effect, there was naturally enough a lot of attention paid to data privacy. But at the same time, there was a clear focus on the wider AI agenda and governments’ role within it. Both the recently published EU and French strategies for AI are exploring how intelligent machines can be harnessed to make sure that citizens enjoy a better quality of life. The UK is doing much the same with, for example, the Turing Institute. What’s particularly interesting to me is not just that these strategies suggest a clear potential for European countries to play catch up with today’s AI leaders, but to play catch up "with a purpose".
The leaders in AI are the US and China, and both nations have made a clear advance on the rest of the world, including Europe. But in trying to match their progress, it makes no sense for Europe to simply try and recreate the tech giants in European form. The constraints on capital and talent are too great, and the market positions of the technology leaders are already entrenched. Shaping Europe’s AI strategy in a different way requires a mindset that is not about replicating what’s gone before, but instead takes things in a different direction.
The question of how AI can be developed to create broader social benefits could be a bigger and better one to pursue. Trying to solve it could lead to what might be thought of as the second evolution of AI, with the first being driven by the Chinese and US giants. This second evolution could be more thoughtful in terms of evolving national strategies. The unconstrained resources flowing into commercial models, as they are in the US and China, may or may not be the right way to create and grow social capital. It’s definitely a question worth asking.
With a little more shaping, some of the huge volume of AI capital that has poured into commercial sectors could have gone, for example, into health and infrastructure. But in reality, only a tiny fraction has made its way to areas like those. The European approach may have a chance to do things differently. Rather than seeking to constrain the power of the existing tech giants (which would arguably only serve to limit innovation and wider human benefits), governments in Europe have the opportunity to more usefully explore other ways to level the playing field. For example, directing investment towards logistics, as France intends as one of its sectoral priorities, could open the opportunity for all business to access new ways to reach their customers that have to date been largely the preserve of the largest US players.
The Internet and AI have changed business models forever. That’s a given. But governments have the chance to invest in supporting a new set of commercial businesses to develop alternative models that can compete with some of the global giants. Rather than taking on the tech giants directly, governments could help new and existing companies to compete in a different way. Instead of seeking to constrain existing businesses (which would arguably diminish the quality of life for many), governments can use policy to help businesses compete. In doing so, they’ll open new possibilities for innovation and help shape a future from which everyone can benefit.
Accenture prepared a White Paper on what needs to be done to enable Europe to maximise the economic and societal potential of AI.