Europe Is at Risk of Falling Out of the AI ‘Arms Race’

A powerful movement is taking place behind the scenes of recent TV reports and newspaper headlines. In the quest for global dominance in the domain of deep tech, countries are involved in a spirited race to develop the next wave of leading artificial intelligence (AI) technologies.

This AI ‘arms race’ is being driven by two tech superpowers: the United States and China. The US is barrelling ahead, with Washington recently signalling its intentions to promote AI as a national priority. Last year, President Donald Trump launched a national AI strategy – the American AI Initiative – which orders funds, programmes and data to be directed towards the research and commercialisation of the technology. 

Government involvement and long-term investment in AI has paid off: US companies have raised more than half (56%) of global AI investment since 2015. China, meanwhile, is catching up quickly and is now vying with the US to become the dominant force in the area. In 2017, it laid out a roadmap to become the world leader in AI by the end of the decade – and create an industry worth 1 trillion yuan (or the equivalent of $147.7 billion). As part of the three-step strategy, China has announced billions in funding for innovative startups and has launched programmes to entice researchers.

Achieving economic and political prowess is the ultimate goal. Indeed, AI is a vast toolbox of capabilities which will give nations a competitive edge in almost every field. However, the question beckons: where does Europe stand in this race, and what is at stake? Nikolas Kairinos, founder and CEO of Soffos, offers his analysis to Finance Monthly.

Europe is falling behind  

Thanks to great access to home-grown talent and an inspiring entrepreneurial spirit, Europe is still a strong contender in this race. According to McKinsey, Europe is home to approximately 25% of the world’s AI startups, largely in line with its size in the world economy. However, its early-stage investment in the technology is well behind that of its competitors, and over-regulation risks stifling further progress.

Thanks to great access to home-grown talent and an inspiring entrepreneurial spirit, Europe is still a strong contender in this race.

Early last year, for instance, the European Commission announced a pilot of ethical AI guidelines which offer a loose framework for the development and use of AI. The guidelines list seven key requirements that AI systems must meet in order to be trustworthy; amongst the chief considerations are transparency and accountability.

The intentions behind such proposals are pure, albeit counter-productive. Proposing a new set of standards to be followed risks burdening researchers with excessive red tape. After all, AI remains a vast ocean of uncharted waters, and introducing ever-changing hurdles will only impede progress in R&D. Innovative new solutions that have the capacity to change society for the better might never come to light if developers do not have the freedom to explore new technologies.

Meanwhile, a European Commission white paper recommends a risk-based approach to ensure regulatory intervention is proportionate. However, this would only serve to deter or delay investment if AI products and services fall under the loose definition of being too ‘high-risk’.

Upholding human rights through proper regulation is of paramount importance. However, Europe must be careful to find the right balance between protecting the rights of its citizens and the needs of technologists working to advance the field of AI.

The risk of ignoring AI solutions  

What is at stake if AI development falls behind? The risk of ignoring AI solutions is immense, particularly for sectors like the financial services industry which must keep pace with evolving consumer habits.

AI has given the world of banking and finance a brand new way of meeting the demands of customers who want better, safer, and more convenient ways to manage their money. And with populations confined to their homes for long periods of time in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, the demand for smart digital solutions that allow people to access, spend, save and invest their money has peaked.

Those who fail to adapt by leveraging AI are at risk of losing their competitive advantage. The real value of AI is its automation potential; AI solutions can power more efficient and informed decision-making, taking on the data processing responsibilities that would normally be left to humans. If used wisely, smarter underwriting decisions can be made by delegating the task of assessing loan and credit applications to AI. Not only is this markedly faster than performing manual checks, but the chances of making risky decisions will also be reduced: AI software can be used to build accurate predictive models to forecast which customers have a higher likelihood of default.

Accurate forecasting is needed to ensure the continuity and success of a business. Again, those businesses that utilise the AI toolsets at their disposal stand to benefit from advanced analytics. Machine learning – a subset of AI – is adept at gathering valuable data, determining trends, anticipating changing customer needs and identifying future risks. Those who turn their back on AI risk losing out on sound risk management, leaving their profits and reputation vulnerable.

Accurate forecasting is needed to ensure the continuity and success of a business.

At the heart of any bank or financial firm, however, lies the customer. Traditional bricks and mortar banking is no longer the favoured option when money can instead be managed online. Yet, while online banking is by no means a new phenomenon, AI offers the hyper-personalised services that customers seek. Indeed, a global study conducted by Accenture recently found that customers today “expect their data to be leveraged into personalised advice and benefits, and tailored to their life stage, financial goals and personal needs.” Meanwhile, 41% of people said they are very willing to use entirely computer-generated advice for banking.

There is clearly an appetite for innovation from the consumer side, and financial institutions must step up to enhance their offering. Enhanced, real-time customer insights generated by AI will optimise recommendations and tailor services to each individual. AI-powered virtual assistants that offer personalised advice and tools which can analyse customers’ spending to help them meet their financial goals are just some of the ways that financial institutions can create a better customer experience.

These are just a few of the many incredible applications of AI within the financial services sector. Not only can it enhance a business’ core proposition, but the cost-saving potential and operational efficiency is becoming difficult to ignore.

AI technologies are transformative, and those who fail to invest in new solutions risk losing out on the multitude of benefits on offer. I encourage business leaders to think carefully about the about the outcomes that they want to drive for their institution, and how AI can help them achieve their goals. I hold out hope that Europe as a whole will ramp up AI development in the coming years, and I hope to see governments, businesses and organisations working together to continue to push forward the AI frontier and pursue innovative applications of this technology.

Nikolas Kairinos is the chief executive officer and founder of Soffos, the world’s first AI-powered KnowledgeBot. He also founded Fountech.ai, a company which is driving innovation in the AI sector and helping consumers, businesses and governments understand how this technology is making the world a better place.

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