What is the future of AI in Europe and what does it take to build an AI solution that is attractive to investors and customers at the same time? How do we reimagine the battle of “AI vs Human Creativity” in Europe?
Is there any company that is not using AI or isn’t AI-enabled in some way? Whether it is startups or corporates, it is no news that AI is boosting digital transformation across industries at a global level and hence it has traction not only from investors but is also the focus of government initiatives across countries. But where does Europe stand with the US and China in terms of digitization and how collective effort could push AI as an important pan-European strategic topic?
First things first: According to McKinsey, the potential of Europe to deliver on AI and catch up against the most AI-ready countries such as the United States and emerging leaders like China is large. If Europe on average develops and diffuses AI according to its current assets and digital position relative to the world, it could add some €2.7 trillion, or 20 per cent, to its combined economic output by 2030. If Europe was to catch up with the US AI frontier, a total of €3.6 trillion could be added to collective GDP in this period.
What comprises the AI landscape and is it too crowded?
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I recently attended a dedicated panel on “AI vs Human Creativity ” as a part of the first day of the Noah conference 2019 in Berlin. Moderated by Pamela Spence, Partner, Global Life Sciences Industry leader, EY, the discussion started with an open question on whether the AI landscape is too crowded? According to a report by EY, there are currently 14000 startups globally which can be associated with the AI landscape. But what does this mean when it comes to the nature of these startups?
Minoo Zarbafi, VP Bertelsmann Investments Digital Partnerships, added perspective to these numbers,” There are companies that are AI-enabled and then there are so-called AI-first companies. I differentiate because there are almost no companies today that are not using AI in their processes. From an investor perspective, we at Bertelsmann like AI-first companies which are offering a B2B platform solution to an unsolved problem . For instance, we invested in China in two pioneer companies in the domain of computer vision that are offering a B2B solution for autonomous driving.” Minoo added that from a partnership perspective Bertelsmann looks at AI companies that can help on the digital transformation journey of the company. “The challenge is to find the right partner with the right approach for our use cases. And we actively seek the support of European and particularly German companies from the startup ecosystem when selecting our partners”, she pointed out.
The McKinsey report too states that one positive point to note is that Europe may not need to compete head to head but rather in areas where it has an edge (such as in business-to-business [B2B] and advanced robotics) and continue to scale up one of the world’s largest bases of technology developers into a more connected Europe-wide web of AI-based innovation hubs.
Growing share of funding from Series A and beyond reflect increased maturity of the AI ecosystem in Europe. Pamela Spence from EY noted, “One in 12 startups uses AI as a part of their product or services, up from 50 about six years ago. Startups labelled as being in AI attract up to 50 per cent more funding than other technology firms. 40 per cent of European startups that are claimed as AI companies actually don’t use AI in a way that is material to their business.”
AI and human creativity go hand-in-hand
Another interesting and important question is how far are we from the paradigm of clever thinking machines? Why should we be afraid of machines? Hans-Christian Boos, CEO & Founder, Arago compares how machines were earlier supposed to do tasks which are too tedious or expensive and complex for humans. “The principle of machine changes with AI. It used to earlier just automate tasks or standardise them. Now, all you need is to describe what you want as an outcome and the machine will find that outcome for you- that is a different ballgame altogether. Everything is result-oriented,” he says.
Minoo Zarbafi adds that as human beings, we have a limited capacity for processing information. “With the help of AI, you can now digest much more information which may cause you to find innovative solutions that you could not see before. One could say, the more complexity, the better the execution with AI. At Bertelsmann, our organisation is decentralised and it will be interesting to see how AI leverages operational execution.”
AI and the Political Landscape
Why discuss AI when we talk about the digital revolution in Europe? According to the tech.eu report titled ‘Seed the Future: A Deep Dive into European Early-Stage Tech Startup Activity’, it would be safe to say that Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and Blockchain lead the way in Europe. The European Commission has identified Artificial Intelligence as an area of strategic importance for the digital economy, citing it’s cross-cutting applications to robotics, cognitive systems and big data analytics. In an effort to support this, the Commission’s Horizon 2020 funding includes considerable funding AI, allocating €700M EU funding specifically.
Chiara Sommer, Investment Director, Intel Capital reflected on this by saying, “In the present scenario, the implementation of AI starts with workforce automation with a focus on how companies could reduce cost and become more efficient. The second generation of AI companies focuses on how products can offer solutions and solve problems like never before. There are entire departments can be replaced by AI. Having said that, the IT industry adopts AI fastest, and then you have industries like healthcare, retail, a financial sector that follow.”
Why are some companies absorbing AI technologies while most others are not? Among the factors that stand out are their existing digital tools and capabilities and whether their workforce has the right skills to interact with AI and machines. Only 23 percent of European firms report that AI diffusion is independent of both previous digital technologies and the capabilities required to operate with those digital technologies; 64 percent report that AI adoption must be tied to digital capabilities, and 58 percent to digital tools. McKinsey reports that the two biggest barriers to AI adoption in European companies are linked to having the right workforce in place.
It is certainly a collective effort of industries, the government, policy makers, corporates to have effective and impactful use of AI. Instead of asking how AI will change society Hans-Christian Boos rightly concludes, “We should change the society to change AI.”
Note: The quotes used in this article are derived from a panel discussion at NOAH Conference Berlin 2019.