Europe would like to be the main character in the development of cutting-edge technological systems, but it is “stuck” between two antipodes that are betting everything on artificial intelligence. In order to fill the digital gap, Europe sets up the third way.

Artificial Intelligence is the discipline, belonging to the computer science field, which allows machines to carry out tasks that we could define as intelligent if they were performed by a human. Nowadays, the most common applications of the so-called intelligent systems are related to industrial robotics, and images, video and text recognition.

We are talking about systems that we define as “intelligent” because they observe the surrounding environment and, due to this fact, they make decisions or act quite autonomously, in order to achieve the established objectives.

You might think that it is something completely new. Actually, they are statistical techniques that have become popular since the 1950s on a theoretical and conceptual level. However, what has happened during the last years is a game-changer: there was on one hand an exponential growth of the computing capacity of processors (which double their capacity about every 18 – 24 months), and on the other hand a major development of digital data.

This is a picture from the British Library, one of the largest libraries all over the world. It holds more than 150 million objects in the catalog; it extends over 14 floors and it has 600 km of shelves (that corresponds to the distance on the highway Milan-Rome).

Now, imagine billions of British Libraries, one on top of the other. This image gives the idea of the amount of data that is created every year through the development of billions of new sensors installed in houses, in cars, in offices, and on roads that are all connected to each other via the Internet. So, this same amount of data will be created every day. Imagine what it means to create, every day, as much data as those generated throughout the whole human history.

It is clear that does not exist a human brain capable of giving sense to this amount of data. Hence the ever-increasing need of automatic systems that filter all the data and extract some useful information for innovative applications.

The kind of development which is drawing closer and closer right now, will involve applications that process data in real time. Starting from self-driving cars to cellular medicine (the single diseased cell) or precision agriculture, where the drone equipped with vision systems monitors plant by plant or even leaf by leaf, in order to decide if it is necessary to feed them with water, pesticide, or fertilizer providing a clear benefit to the environment rather than spreading everything indiscriminately.

The endless growing amount of data generates a big worldwide competition in the race for the development of artificial intelligence systems.

In the U.S. the big web companies such as Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple took on the leadership thanks to a development model focused on the commercial profit.

In China, the government plays a key role in both the guidelines, the investment in research, and the alignment between public and private sectors and the military sector.

At the heart of this matter there is data control. In America, the Tech giants are (simply) the richest companies because they have more data than the others put together. On the contrary, in China, the government has the right to access the personal data of 800 million Internet users and thanks to them it has refined its facial recognition software.

The stated objective consists in identifying every Chinese citizen (one billion and 400 million people) in less than three seconds. Then, it assigns to each one of them a score based on their behavior both in real and virtual life and, depending on this score, they can receive or not some services (digital paternalism).

In addition to create a mean of social control for the government, the development of AI systems has a strategic value to China: we are talking about moving on from an economic development based on low-cost mass production to a high added and technological value production. Until now, 57% of patents are registered in China. The aim of the Chinese strategy is being the world leader by 2030.

On the contrary, the American multinational corporations gather data from all around the world: just consider that 80% of all the search done on the Internet goes through Google. The estimate is 70 thousand per second.

Facebook relies on 2.2 billion users that access the platform at least once a month. Google on its own, during the last three years has invested 30 billion dollars in research and development. A budget that is four times higher than the one invested in research by the European Union. Investments, data and research let these companies know everything about us. At this point, recognition, categorization and profiling become just a matter of drawing up the code.

And what is Europe doing in all this?

Certainly it is necessary to recognize some strong points to Europe: innovation, quality and the leadership within industrial robotics (for instance, the industrial sector like the automotive).

Still today, it is trying to find between these two development models – the Chinese one and the American one – its own model based on, above all, ethics and the fundamental principles of the EU, namely human rights and democratic principles.

The EU countries (after realizing they could not do it alone) signed a political protocol of agreement with the aim of cooperating to the development of Artificial Intelligence and so, they will avoid the scenario in which the old continent becomes a digital colony at the mercy of the U.S. and China.

If this technology will be implemented in all sectors, it would be better to get ready from an economic and social point of view. So, the European idea consists of equipping itself with an ethical and legal framework.

Why does the ethics of Artificial Intelligence spark interest?

The EU commissioned the formulation of the main principles to a group of experts; that is the way in which the artificial intelligence should work for the good, avoid to harm individuals, groups or environment, keep control and the autonomy of the individual, and finally should act according to the law, openness and without discrimination.

We would think that it is flawless. But still, if we open a newspaper and read the news, we won’t find anything about ethical behavior. What’s the point of paying attention to the ethical principles of Artificial Intelligence?

Technology and society work together: we create technology which in turn influences us. The values that we put into technology and implement into the software are our values. So, it becomes necessary to pay attention to what we enter into it.

In conclusion, Artificial Intelligence provides great opportunities, but also some risks. The fact that who controls this technology in the same way controls the future, allows us to become more conscious of the importance of promoting European data. And obviously this is a responsibility of the government, of the industry and of all of us citizens.

The fact that the future is not already defined and that there is no guarantee about the social and economic effect of this technology, should not alarm us. Indeed, it means that the future is not set yet. It is up to all of us European people to get a move on and to use, above all, our intelligence.

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