Five public-private research partnerships in digital technologies aim to reduce dependence on foreign products and instil ‘European values’ in areas such as artificial intelligence and robotics
Next year will see the launch of five new public-private research partnerships in digital technologies that aim to put more flesh on the bones of EU ambitions to achieve greater technology sovereignty and to ensure European principles and ethics underpin products such as robots, machine learning, autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence.
“We are doing this for our European values,” said Thomas Hahn, the president of the Big Data Value Association (BDVA), the industry group behind the one of the partnerships, in Artificial Intelligence, Data and Robotics, and chief software expert at Siemens. “We have to increase our momentum in Europe,” Hahn said. “We have to push this forward in a clever way.”
The AI partnership has set the objectives of boosting new markets and applications and attracting investment, to create technical, economic and societal value for business, citizens and the environment. “Europe can and must be in seven years the pacemaker – and we have a powerful network between startups, SMEs, big companies, research institutes and government doing this,” said Hahn.
Similarly, Colin Willcock, chair of the 5G Infrastructure Association, the group behind the partnership in smart networks and services, and head of radio network standardisation at Nokia, said Europe must be able to shape its cellular networks to align with European values in areas like data protection. “If we are basing all our future industry on this infrastructure, the ability to influence it is very important,” he said.
Cellular networks are stretching their tentacles into more and more communication-dependent applications. Faster networks are key to autonomous vehicles, the internet of things, smart cities and virtual reality. “All of these [are] areas we can apply these mobile communication and we can get huge advantages,” said Willcock.
The goal of the smart networks partnership is to strengthen 5G networks, to enable industrial leadership, while simultaneously laying the foundation for next generation 6G. Working together, industry partners, including non-European companies, can set the route to 6G, working on proof of concept for the underpinning technologies, in preparation for the start of deployment in 2030.
“If we do not have the ability to create and influence that technology in Europe, it will not meet the requirement and constraints of the European market,” said Willcock. “It is vital that we have some sort of technological sovereignty.”
The other three digital technology partnerships are in high performance computing; key digital technologies; and photonics. Taken together, the five public private partnerships will form the digital cluster of the 40 or so research partnerships due to be set up under EU’s next research programme, Horizon Europe.
Within the digital cluster, all five are interlinked and interdependent. Many AI tools need 5G to run efficiently, while AI is needed to process the massive amount of data generated by 5G networks. For Europe to be able to shape the development of these sectors according to its regulations and priorities, such as protection of personal data and human-centric AI, it must have a grip on all the key technologies.
However, this does not mean that Europe should produce all its own technology. It is about shaping the technology that is coming out according to Europe’s priorities. The key is understanding the whole value chain from digital infrastructure to dataspaces, on to applying data solutions in different industries, while involving players from other parts of the world in the process, says Hahn.
The goal is to empower the entire value chain, not just the producers of the technology, said Ana Garcia, director general of BDVA. “We really want to see in 2027 that we have developed the trust, the skills, the tools, and make sure that different sectors, including the public sector can safely adopt technologies based on safe AI, data, robotics.”
A BVDA position paper published this week says Europe’s two major internationally distinguishing realities in this area – of a diversified business landscape and an ethics-driven regulatory framework, “Should be considered as strengths, rather than weaknesses.” If appropriately tapped into, Europe’s higher business diversity can enable it to compete with regions dominated by large players that monopolise the market and possess large data assets, the paper says.
The five digital partnerships plan to work with each other to ensure take-up of their respective technologies. “We do not only want to develop the [data and AI] usage part, but we want our technology providers to be competitive with non-European ones in a way that we develop our own technologies. This takes into consideration the whole technology value chain,” said Garcia.
However, Willcock said that despite ongoing discussions with different partnerships, the talks lack structure. “It is a worry how we can work with so many at the same time,” he said. One answer could be bringing all digital cluster partnerships together once a year to discuss how they can take a joint approach. “We have been trying to break these silos, but there is no overall picture. It is pretty hazy,” he said.
The European Commission is currently assessing the partnership proposals. Once the 2021 – 2027 EU budget is agreed, the European Parliament and the Council must agree the plans, including details of potential synergies between partnerships.
Other digital partnerships include:
High performance computing
In 2018, the commission launched a public-private partnership to acquiring and install supercomputers around Europe. In September, it announced the EU budget, member state and industry investment in the partnership will be boosted to €8 billion for the next seven years.
With more money, the EU hopes to improve its supercomputer capacity and produce its own machines, reducing Europe’s dependence on foreign hardware suppliers. EuroHPC will set Europe on the path to becoming “the most modern continent when it comes to data processing,” said EU internal market commissioner, Thierry Breton.
Another partnership will deal with photonics technologies that underpin smartphones, lasers, and many medical instruments. The goal of the partnership will be to strengthen core photonics technologies to ensure Europe’s competitiveness and technical sovereignty, enhance the photonics innovation ecosystem in Europe, and involve downstream sectors in setting priorities for the industry.