Interview Of The Week

Interview Of The Week: Carlos Moedas

Carlos Moedas, the European Commissioner for Research, Science, and Innovation, is a co-chair of the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting of The New Champions in Tianjin, China. In an interview with The Innovator’s editor-in-chief, Moedas outlined Europe’s plans to compete in the age of artificial intelligence (AI ).

Q: How will Europe leverage its human capital, R&D strength, and large industrial base, to be a leader in innovation in the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

CM: Europe has an excellent scientific base including in computer science, and a very strong industrial base. This gives us a firm foundation to boost our innovation capacity. Horizon Europe, the new EU research and innovation program for 2021–2027 that we proposed in June, is designed to take advantage of these strengths. It will focus on impact rather than instruments, mobilizing all actors needed to achieve its goals including industry, academia, research centers, public authorities, foundations, civil society, and end-users.

Q: Given that machine intelligence and learning is driving access to large volumes of data, Europe’s high data protection standards could be seen as a disadvantage against the likes of China, where personal data flows more freely. But some believe Europe’s focus on data protection could give it a competitive edge. Do you agree?

CM: Citizens around the world now realize how their personal data can be misused. Publicity around the case of Cambridge Analytica dramatically increased this awareness. This is why adherence to our privacy principles suddenly became an important marketing tool for companies. At this point, only 4% of world data is stored in the EU. But high protection standards are increasingly becoming a competitive advantage for companies that operate in Europe and adhere to these standards.

Q: In launching the Ethics initiative it seems as if Europe wants to build AI that reflects European values. How can the Commission articulate these values in a way that will appeal to all Europeans?

CM: After consulting the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies, the Commission outlined its strategy for AI in the communication Artificial Intelligence for Europe, published earlier this year. One of the main messages is that we must ensure that Europeans are prepared for socio-economic changes brought about by AI. The communication outlines a list of measures needed to create an appropriate ethical and legal framework. Only such a holistic approach to this pervasive an d enabling technology, recognizing potential benefits and challenges, will provide a strong basis that Europe can build on.

Q: Is Europe considering drafting an industrial policy that would encourage a technology-native approach to protecting individual privacy and sovereignty?

CM: Data sovereignty is not only about privacy. It is also about controlling the data you generate in your car, Internet of Things device, etc. Here the Commission decided to take a more cautious approach, even though “law by technology” is already a principle of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and privacy by design should be a key requirement to be taken into account. Although the approach you describe, about drafting policy encouraging a technology-native approach, is not excluded for the future, for the time being we leave it to individuals to agree with private law contracts on how to deal with the data generated by these devices.

Q: What steps are being taken to not just draft laws, but to actually encode ethics into technology used in Europe?

CM: Computer scientists are currently investigating whether and to what extent ethics can be encoded into technology. This is not always a straightforward process. The recently launched High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence is looking into this, working closely with a broad range of stakeholders through the European AI Alliance. Beyond privacy, ethics by design is also on the agenda, as well as possible certification and standardization procedures.

Q: What can or should the Commission do to encourage partnerships and M&A to build pan-European and global AI companies?

CM: The Commission is currently working closely with EU member states on a coordinated action plan. Its main purpose is to join forces and combine strategies so that we do not waste resources and get the maximum out of synergies. Joint actions will also encourage pan-European partnerships and strengthen EU position on a global scale. Besides looking into the ethics of AI, the High-Level Group will also formulate a number of policy and investment recommendations for AI in the mid to long-term period.

Q: How can Europe catch up with the investments in AI in the U.S. and Asia, given that it is behind not just in the amount of public funding, but also funding by private companies?

CM: The Commission recently adopted three proposals of complementary programs to ensure research and innovation leadership and the broad rollout of AI. First is Horizon Europe, the next research and innovation program for 2021–2027, which is proposed to work with an overall budget of €100 billion and which is expected to increase investments in AI-related research and innovation. The second program, Digital Europe, with a proposed budget of €9.2 billion dedicated to digital transformation, has the objective of wide uptake and deployment across Europe of critical innovative digital solutions. And finally, the InvestEU Fund will provide access to finance, covering a broad range of activities and financial instruments. The interlinking of these programs between themselves and EU member states’ national efforts should provide a powerful tool for Europe to secure prosperity and competitiveness through digitalization.

Q: How might the new European Fund for Strategic Innovation help?

CM: The European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI), notably under the SME Window, finances SMEs to develop and adopt AI solutions for their digital transformation. Given its success, EFSI is now been confirmed in its investment strategy and reinforced with additional EU financing for its operations. This EFSI 2 will continue investing into the economy, including in AI technologies, until 2020, with the objective of reaching a half a trillion euros of investment [ in public and private funds] between 2016–2020. EFSI also paves the way to the future sources of investments for AI under the new budget of the Commission for 2021–2027.

Q: What about the role of startups and other SMEs in research projects? They don’t have the knowledge, time or funding to fill out complicated applications.

CM: SMEs are the backbone of the European economy and therefore play a pivotal role in ensuring its global competitiveness. In Horizon 2020, our current research and innovation program, over €8 billion is on track to directly support SMEs participating in collaborative research and innovation projects. To further boost the participation of the most promising SMEs, the European Innovation Council under the new program, Horizon Europe, will further cut red tape and ensure that companies have the opportunity to receive quickly EU funding to scale up their business and create jobs in Europe.

Q: Large European R&D programs are often criticized for their failure to lead to commercialized products. How do you avoid this trap when it comes to AI?

CM: The current research and innovation program, Horizon 2020, already includes a number of instruments that help companies bring their ideas to the market. But we can do more. That is why in the last three years of Horizon 2020, we have launched the European Innovation Council (EIC) pilot. This new instrument brings together the parts of Horizon 2020 that provide funding, advice and networking opportunities for those at the cutting edge of innovation. Based on the success of this pilot, the new seven-year program, Horizon Europe, will offer an enhanced EIC for high potential innovators, aiming to put Europe at the forefront of breakthrough market-creating innovation. The EIC will focus on breakthrough innovation, a bottom-up and risk-taking approach, on innovator needs, and a proactive management.

About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.