Europe is struggling for relevance in the age of AI

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This concentration of power is inconvenient for European governments. It makes European companies the downstream customers of the future, importing the latest services and technology in exchange for money and data sent westward across the Atlantic. And these concerns have acquired a new urgency – partly because some in Brussels see a growing gap in values ​​and beliefs between Silicon Valley and the average EU citizen and their elected representatives; and partly because AI dominates the collective imagination as the engine of the next technological revolution.

Europeans’ fears of falling behind in AI predate ChatGPT. In 2018, the European Commission released an AI plan calling for “AI made in Europe” that could compete with the US and China. But beyond a desire for some kind of control over the shape of the technology, the operational definition of AI sovereignty has become very vague. “For some, it means we need to band together to fight against Big Tech,” says Daniel Mugge, a professor of political arithmetic at the University of Amsterdam who studies technology policy in the EU. “For others, it means there’s nothing wrong with Big Tech, as long as it’s European, so let’s get started and make it happen.”

Those competing priorities have begun to complicate EU regulation. The bloc’s AI Act, which was passed by the European Parliament in March and is likely to become law this summer, focuses heavily on regulating potential harms and privacy concerns surrounding the technology. However, some member states, notably France, made clear during negotiations on the law that they fear regulation could stifle their emerging AI companies, which they hope will become European alternatives to OpenAI.

Speaking ahead of a UK summit on AI safety last November, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said Europe “needs to innovate before it regulates” and that the continent needs “European actors mastering AI”. The final text of the AI ​​Act includes a commitment to make the EU a “leader in the use of trustworthy AI”.

“The Italians, Germans and French thought at the last minute: ‘Okay, we should give European companies some leeway on the base model,'” says Mugge. “It coalesced into the idea that Europe needs European AI. Since then, I think people have realized that it’s a bit more difficult than they expected.”

Sarlin, who recently went on a tour of European capitals, including meeting with policymakers in Brussels, says Europe has some of the elements it needs to compete. To become a player in AI, he says, you need to have data, computing power, talent and capital.

Sarlin said data is widely available, and AI talent exists in Europe, although it sometimes struggles to keep up.

To mobilize more computing power, the EU is investing in high-performance computing resources, creating a pan-European network of high-performance computing facilities, and providing access to supercomputers to startups through its “AI Factories” initiative.

Accessing the capital needed to build large AI projects and companies is also challenging, as there is a huge gap between the US and everyone else. According to Stanford University’s AI Index report, private investment in US AI companies in 2023 exceeds $67 billion, which is 35 times more than the amount invested in Germany or France. Research from Accel Partners shows that in 2023, the seven largest private investment rounds made by US generative AI companies totaled $14 billion. The top seven in Europe totaled less than $1 billion.

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