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Artificial intelligence in Europe: no one must be left behind, says EESC

The development of artificial intelligence in Europe should be as broadly inclusive as possible, the EESC says in its assessment of the European Commission's Coordinated Plan on Artificial Intelligence. Policy should ensure civil society reaps the numerous benefits of AI while minimising risks such as the manipulation of democratic processes.

In its opinion on the European Commission's proposed Coordinated Plan on Artificial Intelligence, the EESC stresses that AI-related policies must be designed so as to engage all social players, including businesses, workers and consumers. This means ensuring the accessibility of data and infrastructure, the availability of user-friendly products and access to knowledge and skills.

Inclusiveness is important for both people and businesses, particularly SMEs, says opinion rapporteur Tellervo Kylä-Harakka-Ruonala. Special measures should be taken to increase women's skills in AI and encourage them to take up AI jobs and tasks, she urges, in view of reports that women are lagging behind men in ICT professions in all EU countries (1.5 million women out of a total of 8.9 million in 2018, according to Eurostat figures).

Education systems in Member States must be overhauled to prepare Europe's young people for a world with pervasive AI. Curricula from primary schools to universities need to be reformed to guarantee a strong base in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM disciplines) as well as wider competencies such as critical thinking. This will help cover the skills demand in Europe, where, according to the Commission, there were 600 000 unfilled vacancies for digital experts in 2018.

At the same time, present-day workers who risk losing their job will need lifelong and ongoing learning to upgrade their skills or retrain in new tasks. In fact, learning is expected to increasingly occur in the workplace, as AI changes the nature of jobs rather than killing them altogether.

The EESC believes that investment in education and training should be a central part of national AI strategies, and also calls for increased EU funds to support reforms.

To make sure society as a whole reaps the numerous benefits of AI, the EESC suggests that the EU should adopt the three-pronged framework of sustainable development as a guiding approach for future AI development:If AI benefits society – in the spirit of sustainable development – by generating economic prosperity, social well-being and health, as well as environmental gains, it can be acknowledged as 'doing good, thus overcoming widespread fears about it, says Ms Kylä-Harakka-Ruonala.

In its debate on the Commission's plan, the EESC also echoed the general call for more substantial funding to be allocated to the development of AI if the EU is serious about challenging competitors such as the US and Asia.

Background

In April 2018, the Commission published a European strategy for a human-centric AI based on 3 pillars:

  • increasing public and private investment in AI,
  • preparing for socio-economic changes, and
  • ensuring an appropriate ethical and legal framework

At roughly the same time, EU Member States together with Norway (later joined by Switzerland) signed a declaration in which they agreed to cooperate more closely on AI. The Commission's Coordinated Plan follows up on that declaration, outlining the actions to be taken.

The coordinated plan provides a strategic framework for national AI strategies. Five Member States (France, Finland, Sweden, the UK and Germany) have already adopted a national AI strategy with a dedicated budget. Some countries (Denmark, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Ireland and Norway) include AI-related actions in their broader digitalisation strategies. Others (Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Slovakia and Spain) are in the process of developing strategies. All Member States are encouraged to develop their national AI strategies by mid-2019, building on the work done at European level.

This first plan covers the 2019-2020 period and is to be monitored and reviewed annually.