How Europe can lead the AI revolution

21 March 2019

It will be important not to over-regulate AI, allowing for an open ecosystem where European developers can thrive, writes Abraham Liu

While 5G is about speed and capacity, and the Internet of Things about connecting machines, it is Artificial Intelligence (AI) that will drive the next generation of computing for communications networks and the devices using them. AI is the brains of the industrial revolution now underway, and whoever develops the best AI will lead the future global economy. Hence the intense competition to develop the best infrastructure, the best products and the best services.

AI is now at the heart of what Huawei does: creating and innovating new technologies for the good of society. We reinvest around 15% of our revenues back into research, development and innovation. Last year that amounted to a research budget of over EUR 11.5 billion, and AI is present in just about everything we are working on.

We predict that, by 2025 (just six years from now), there will be over 40 billion personal smart devices in the world, and 90% of users will have a smart digital assistant.

AI has already have arrived as a new general-purpose technology. It is going to change all industries and organisations on the planet, and we think it will do so for the better... helping to bring society closer together at a time when we very much need to remember that, globally, we have far more in common than we have differences.

Working with European developers

New developments in AI require a joint effort across the entire value chain. Companies like ours work every day with software and technology developers in the ICT ecosystem… literally millions of them. Over the next 5 years, we are investing EUR 890 million to implement a Developer Enablement Plan worldwide. This will allow these developers to build products and solutions based on Huawei's products, platforms, and APIs.

Huawei has built and operated 12 OpenLabs globally. There will be 3 OpenLabs in Western Europe by the end of 2021 and around EUR 45 million is planned for investment here to strengthen joint innovation and solution-building with customers and partners. 

AI has the potential to drive productivity, competitiveness and innovation, and improve human lives significantly. It has been estimated that AI can contribute over EUR 13 trillion to the global economy – around EUR 8 trillion on the consumption side and EUR 5.6 trillion in productivity gains - so it will naturally generate many thousands of new jobs… in Europe, too.

AI also gives us the opportunity to solve pressing problems, for instance in energy and security, and can be used by governments in anything from natural disaster prevention and fraud detection to modernising education and healthcare systems.

To trust AI applications and the jobs and decisions they make, especially in sensitive areas such as legal and healthcare, transparency is key. Companies will be responsible for designing AI software in a way that is as transparent as possible.

Do not over-regulate

While markets like to be left to self-regulate as much as possible, there will be the need for some generally-agreed principles as regards to the ethics of AI – we in business accept that - and some parameters to guide the technological development and the innovation in this sector. We have a healthy debate going on about that in society today.

But it is important that we do not over-regulate, as this would critically hamper European innovation. Europe should focus on supporting AI innovation and developing high-quality specifications, standards, and academia-industry collaborations, instead of regulating too early a technology still in its infancy. Stiff regulations would make it very difficult for EU companies to embrace the growing AI ecosystem. 

In fact, if you examine the issue, AI is, at present, actually helping tech companies and users comply with existing EU regulations. By building artificial intelligence (AI) into devices, we are making an important contribution to companies meeting Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Mobile AI puts us in a position where we can do a lot of the AI computing and intelligence in the device. That means really sensitive and personal data won’t need to go to the cloud anymore.

More evidence-based research

But the actual governing principles for AI are still being defined. They are the subject of research by top institutions worldwide, with programs at Oxford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard now beginning to receive substantial amounts of funding to research and provide guidance in this area. 

We need such evidence-based research on an ongoing basis to provide guidance to decision-makers in the private and public sectors. They need to build an institutional knowledge base on the ethics and governance of AI, so as to foster capacity among their employees and to strengthen interfaces with industry and policymakers.

Better quality data and close monitoring of the uptake of AI and its related risks will be key to establishing an accountability framework. Then firm guidelines can be established which European companies can comply with, without curbing their natural innovatory instincts.