Research and Advances
Computing Profession Europe Region Special Section: Hot topics

Europe’s Ambitious ICT Agenda

  1. Introduction
  2. Building a CERN for AI
  3. Commercializing Quantum Computing and 5G
  4. Trailblazing on Global Collaboration and Regulation
  5. Author
  6. Footnotes
hand touching glowing circuit board

For Europe, investment in advanced ICT is a must. With an aging population and a shrinking workforce, Europe needs to tap artificial intelligence (AI), 5G wireless connectivity, quantum computing, and other ICT technologies that could drive the next step change in productivity.

To that end, the region can build on a long-standing scientific tradition. Thanks in part to sustained public sector support, Europe is a leading producer of high-quality scientific research. Its scientists excel in aeronautics, transport technologies, and energy and construction, based on the number of widely cited publications.a

Figure. Leading European AI researchers assembled in Montreal last December to announce the establishment of a society to found a cross-national European Laboratory for Learning and Intelligent Systems (ELLIS).

As a densely populated continent, Europe is at the forefront of urban planning and the development of smart transport systems. London’s $20 billion Cross-rail project, which plans to introduce new intelligent on-train management systems to reduce energy costs by up to 20%, is one of many examples of Europe’s commitment to public transportation.

And Europe remains a leader in the automotive sector,b where major carmakers and well-funded start-ups are driving a shift toward electric propulsion and self-driving systems. In Sweden, for example, North-volt has broken ground on a $4.2 billion factory to produce lithium ion batteries for electric cars.

Indeed, European policymakers reckon batteries will be as essential to the automotive industry of the 21st century as the combustion engine was in the 20th century. The European Commission (EC), the European Investment Bank, and over 260 industrial and innovation stakeholders have joined the European Battery Alliance (EBA), which is now building its first pilot production facilities. The EC estimates Europe will need at least 20 ‘gigafactories’ (large-scale battery cell production facilities) to meet local demand.

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Building a CERN for AI

But maintaining its industrial and manufacturing base may require Europe to raise its game in AI and robotics, which promise to drive another industrial revolution. To that end, leading European scientists are trying to establish the European Lab for Learning and Intelligent Systems (ELLIS), a multinational institute that would be devoted to AI research. The concept is modeled on CERN, the particle physics lab created after the World War II to stem the flow of physicists across the Atlantic. Although it is not clear whether ELLIS will get off the drawing board, the EC has promised to spend an additional $1.7 billion on AI research between 2018 and 2020, which it hopes will stimulate a further $2.8 billion investment by public-private partnerships.

That comes on top of a pledge by the EC and EU members states to spend $1.1 billion building world-class supercomputers, after recognizing that Europe is also falling behind in this area. “We do not have any supercomputers in the world’s top 10,” Andrus Ansip, EC Vice-President for the Digital Single Market, said in January 2017. “We want to give European researchers and companies world-leading supercomputer capacity by 2020—to develop technologies such as artificial intelligence and build the future’s everyday applications in areas like health, security or engineering.” However, both China and the U.S. are also investing heavily in AI research and supercomputing capacity.

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Commercializing Quantum Computing and 5G

The EC is also anxious for Europe to commercialize quantum computing. Blogging about its new $1.1 billion Quantum Flagship initiative, Ansip wrote: “While Europe has many world-class scientists in this field, there is so far little industrial take-up or commercial exploitation here.” After the Graphene Flagship and the Human Brain Project, the Quantum Flagship is the third large-scale research and innovation initiative of this kind funded by the EC.

At the same time, Europe wants to lead the development and deployment of 5G wireless technologies. In 2018, the non-profit European Investment Bank has lent $580 million to Nokia and $300 million to Ericsson to further R&D related to 5G. To help build a global consensus on future 5G standards and spectrum requirements, the European Commission has established Joint Declarations on 5G with Brazil, China, Japan, and South Korea. Cooperation agreements are also being discussed with India and the U.S.

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Trailblazing on Global Collaboration and Regulation

With 50 countries packed into one continent, Europeans are well accustomed to international collaboration, as evident in its major strategic alliances, such as Airbus, CERN, the European Molecular Biology Lab, and the European Space Agency, which are all backed by multiple countries within Europe. European businesses also tend to be supportive of international standards: Europe was the birthplace of GSM, the technology that brought mobile communications to the world.

Furthermore, Europe’s regulators are highly influential. EU directives and regulations often form the basis for government interventions in other markets. The General Data Protection Regulation (see Laurence Kalman’s article on p. 38) and the second Payment Services Directive, which both came into force in 2018, provide consumers with sweeping new rights to protect and extract their personal data. This radical legislation, together with the multibillion-dollar fines levied on Google, underlines the EU’s readiness to try and exert more control over disruptive digital players from outside its borders.

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