Why Europe Needs to Push for Open Robotics and Artificial Intelligence

Trump’s version of America cannot be trusted to act in the world’s best interest

Students building robots. Photo: FatCamera/iStock

With the inauguration of a U.S. president who is openly hostile toward democracy, science, and many other foundations of a civilized society, it is time for EU members to focus on their common values again and stop looking to America for leadership. Europe is now sandwiched between Putin’s czardom and Trump’s kakistocracy, and both have displayed great interest in the EU’s destabilization. As Rafael Behr pointed out in the Guardian:

“For Putin, the EU has always been an obstacle to the pursuit of a divide-and-rule strategy within the former Soviet sphere of influence in the old Eastern bloc. He and Trump would both prefer a Europe of disparate and disorganised nation states, all potential clients of Washington and Moscow, without an organising principle of their own.”

Meanwhile, autocratic populists are also threatening democracy from within Europe, of course. To counter these tendencies and to strengthen people’s trust in the Union’s benefits, the first step is to stop using the EU as a convenient scapegoat for everything going wrong and to be more grateful for the decades of peace it has helped to secure (among many other good things).

The core element for regained trust in the EU, however, is a strong economy that provides good, well-paying jobs for everybody. And in the 21st century, that is only possible with a very strong focus on technology.

Excessive fear of new technologies

This may not be self-evident to everyone. The question whether technology eliminates or creates jobs is about as old as humanity itself, but after thousands of years of human progress it’s safe to say that the regions with the most advanced technologies have always enjoyed the highest levels of employment (recommended reading: “The Silk Roads: A New History of the World” by Peter Frankopan). There is no guarantee that it will stay this way, especially with the expected rapid increase in automation, but we should be humble enough not to expect that we are the first generation where history suddenly takes a completely new turn (every generation before us thought the same thing).

If you need a little boost of optimism, check out this recent study by McKinsey:

“While much of the current debate about automation has focused on the potential for mass unemployment, people will need to continue working alongside machines to produce the growth in per capita GDP to which countries around the world aspire. Thus, our productivity estimates assume that people displaced by automation will find other employment.”

There are various similar studies out there; they just don’t get nearly as much attention as those breathless headlines claiming that every second job may be replaced by robots and artificial intelligence (AI) tomorrow.

Making skepticism a strength

While the EU already provides funding for many innovative projects, the overall approach to new technologies is still comparatively timid, sometimes paralyzed by fear (examples for this are overanxious digital media regulations, undifferentiated opposition to biogenetics initiatives, or the infamous Google Streetview hysteria in Germany). It’s no coincidence that critical breakthroughs for electric vehicles and self-driving cars were achieved in California, not in Europe, where carmakers would have had the resources to move forward much sooner. 
Yet this skeptical approach to new technologies can be turned into a strength. The goal cannot be to act more quickly than Americans and Asians — that doesn’t seem to fit the continent’s mentality. However, building safer, more reliable and more democratic versions of new technologies can be a significant advantage. It would be rewarded by consumers and help create new jobs for young people if done right (and if marketed well — something that Europe is collectively terrible at).

Taking control now instead of complaining later

Among the most important areas to focus on right now are robotics, AI, and machine learning, which are all highly related. There is no doubt that these technologies will change the way we live and work massively in the coming decades, but currently this future is still being shaped. We must decide right now whether we want to hand our fate to a few huge corporations and wait for whatever they come up with, only to complain afterward about how unfair their products and business models are. Also, there’s a very strong chance that their systems will be outfitted with backdoors for convenient access by the NSA and other shady characters.

The alternative to this passive approach requires cooperation and commitment. Again, not exactly Europe’s outstanding characteristics so far, but we need to work on this. A decentralized network of researchers and businesses can absolutely compete with the goliaths of technology — and certainly create alternatives to their solutions.

This network’s main goals should be:

• To ensure that new technologies in robotics and AI are widely available and don’t remain in the hands of a few corporations or countries
• To create transparency regarding the functioning and use of these technologies
• To spread these technologies to areas that are not lucrative investments for corporations, e.g. certain uses in healthcare, education, and environmental protection 
• To support technologies that cooperate with human workers instead of replacing them

Some steps — of very many — on that road include:

• Placing a strong focus on collaboration and common goals among European scientists and businesses
• Building a freely available technological framework that helps small businesses start projects in robotics and AI on a solid foundation 
• Standardizing platforms and data to make them transferable 
• Securing strong commitment, both politically and financially, from the EU and its member states

Much research, little effect

The EU has begun to understand that robotics is a very important topic. Following various other projects, it is funding a public-private partnership (“SPARC”) between the European Commission, the robotics industry, and research institutions, providing 700 million euros over seven years (until 2020). A good thing.

Sadly, though, the EU’s efforts have hardly had any effects on small and medium enterprises (SME) in Europe so far. Automakers continue to be the primary users of robotics technology, but progress is slow everywhere else. In a fairly large city like Bremen with a high degree of industrial activity as well as several strong robotics research institutions, I have found it extremely difficult to locate SMEs which use robots successfully (I’m talking about actual robots, nut just “dumb” automation that’s only capable of one very specific task). In addition to the high costs, most businesses are hesitating because they just don’t know what robots can do for them.

Meanwhile Kuka, one of the continent’s largest robot makers, has just been sold to the Chinese Midea Group, not exactly strengthening the robotics industry itself in Europe. Some smaller companies are gaining ground, but the critical mass isn’t yet there to create a serious counterweight to large international corporations. Besides, the most promising newcomers could be bought up tomorrow as well.

More collaboration urgently needed

All of which means that the EU as well as the more civic-minded businesses and scientists need to explore the benefits of open-source technologies in robotics and AI. At a conference in Bremen, Professor Herman Bruyninckx (University of Leuven) recently criticized that while the EU has already invested large amounts of money in robotics research, very few of the results can be found on public platforms. “That’s our own fault,” he told the audience of scientists, “the governments don’t prevent us from doing it.” He suggested building a Linux-like knowledge platform — in the style of Wikipedia and the Wikidata project — as a counterweight to proprietary platforms such as Watson, Siri and Cortana.

This approach would encourage collaboration among researchers — not only in Europe. It would also provide independence from the industry’s major players and make it more difficult for authoritarian governments to take control of entire systems.

First steps

Some groundwork has already been done. The University of Bremen’s Institute of Artificial Intelligence has created a platform called “openEASE”, a web-based knowledge service providing robot and human activity data. This platform facilitates the sharing of knowledge about the best ways to perform certain tasks, helping robots to make decisions better and faster. (Disclaimers: 1. I am currently employed part-time at the University of Bremen (and therefore biased). 2. The views expressed in this article are entirely my own.)

Also, researchers at TU Vienna have developed various freely available tools that help to improve robots’ image recognition. These and other projects can become important building blocks of a European initiative for open robotics and AI.

To be clear: U.S.-based initiatives in this area are highly welcome and should be supported as well, e.g. the Robot Operating System (ROS), a framework for writing robot software. The “Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to Benefit People and Society”, which was founded by U.S. corporations, and the non-profit company OpenAI are both taking important steps in these directions as well.

However, it is not wise to wait for the Americans to do it all, as stated above. Europe needs to get its own act together — and cooperate with everyone else without abdicating responsibility again.