Artificial intelligence (AI) is a pivotal technology that is bound to disturb the world in the way digital technology works and its effect on society, industry and education. AI has been with us for some time through existing technology, sometimes unknowingly, but other times very evidently.
It would be naïve to say we did not know that this was coming. In the past 15 years, Amazon, Google and others leveraged the use of machine learning to their commercial advantage using natural language processing on voluminous data to understand consumer behaviour and embedded use in their online services.
Nowadays, robotic devices work alongside humans in manufacturing and services. Driverless cars are being tested as we speak, and smart algorithms are working in the background to offer suggestions to internet users for products and services through the use of vast consumer data being captured.
The European Union’s ambition is “to become the world-leading region for developing and deploying cutting-edge, ethical and secure AI, promoting a human-centric approach in the global context”. To this end, a coordinated plan on AI has been drawn up to maximise the impact of investments at EU and national levels, encourage synergies and cooperation across the EU, have a common approach on ethics, foster the exchange of best practices and collectively define the way forward.
It is therefore important that the European Commission keeps a close watch on Member States’ developments on AI. Terming this ‘AI Watch’ and led by the Commission, this initiative will provide strategic guidance for national strategies in a coordinated European fashion.
The foreseen AI Watch tasks include:
• the development of an AI ecosystem;
• the benchmarking of capabilities and performance of AI-based systems;
• the monitoring in the uptake of AI applications across the economy;
• the development of a precise estimate on the evolution of the European market shares in robotics;
• to monitor the impact on the workforce;
• the gathering of information on Member States’ national initiatives on AI;
• the analysis on the use and impact of AI in public services;
• the development of a set of structured AI indicators, and
• the setting up of an online portal for the dissemination of all the information for timely use by Member States.
Additionally, the EU has proposed the setting up of national or regional innovation hubs to build up national capabilities in AI and share information. To complement national investments by the Member States, these hubs will be instrumental to acquire EU funding on AI. Various workgroup meetings, led by the Commission, have already started between the Commission and the Member States. The eSkills Malta Foundation is one of the Malta representatives.
On the local scene, yet again, Malta’s commitment into the digital world of AI was already shown by setting up the ‘Malta.AI’, which launched a high-level policy document for public consultation in March 2019. The main areas of focus include investment, start-ups, and innovation, public and private sector adoption, education and workforce, legal and ethical frameworks, and the AI ecosystem infrastructure.
Malta.AI has set up various national workgroups to come up with feedback on these areas which will eventually feed into a national AI strategy. The EU is very conscious of this effort and is following our work closely. Only a few countries have really tackled the launch of an AI strategy, and yet again Malta will be in the leading pack.
The national AI strategy will be in sync with other existing strategies and initiatives, such as the national eSkills strategy and Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) regulation. It is also a fact that the national ICT industry has started transforming their products for AI, and some firms are also working hard to launch products.
AI introduces opportunities in almost all areas, including healthcare, mobility, fintech, advanced manufacturing, smart power systems, bio-economy, media and crime detection. In the past, we have been speaking about the subject of digital transformation and this is part of it. The truth is that when technologies develop they are bound to replace older technologies or integrate with existing ones, disrupting industry, education and society. It is therefore crucial that we prepare for this.
Carm Cachia is chief administrator, eSkills Malta Foundation.