Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a force-multiplier for economic growth, just ask the United States and China. For them, it is an enabling technology creating economic possibilities on a grand scale. Yet Germany, despite its reputation for technological innovation, is lagging in the strategic adoption of AI, with the government strangely reluctant to act. That is about to change, but can they catch up?
Leading Global AI Hub
Following a period of inaction, while Chancellor Angela Merkel forged a post-election alliance, Germany recently released a comprehensive AI strategy at the Digital Summit in Nuremberg, aimed at making Germany a “leading global AI hub.” Can Germany achieve this goal? Given their research capability in other fields, it seems likely.
The €3 billion ($3.4 billion) strategy will see the establishment of new research centers across Germany where academia and industry can innovate in a climate of favorable government policy. Such centers will extend their collaborative reach to no less than 24 other E.U. states, most notably France, who will invest €1.5 billion ($1.7 billion) into a planned Franco-German “Tech Axis.”
Talent from around the world will be attracted to at least a hundred new professorial positions in AI at German universities. These will breed a new generation of researchers on the cutting edge of AI technology.
Government services will undergo a comprehensive program of digitization that will use AI for smoother service delivery, following the example of countries like Estonia and Singapore. Germany has some catching up to do; in the E.U.’s 2017 Digital Progress Report, the country ranked 23rd amongst the 28 member states for eGovernment service delivery.
On the commercial side will be programs to provide financial and infrastructure support for small to medium enterprises and start-ups. Strategic know-how will be transferred more smoothly to those who can make good use of it.
All of this will build on an existing pool of AI expertise from companies like Daimler Benz, BMW, and Volkswagen whose self-driving vehicles are among the most advanced in the world. The health sector is also well-advanced, among several others.
But what are some of the critical factors that will make or break Germany’s progress?
Plentiful data is the life-blood of AI, it is how they learn. There are vast quantities of public sector data generated by the German government that is currently not available to AI developers.
The German government now makes this data available in an anonymized form to established and would-be developers alike. They are certain to make good use of it to develop next-generation AI. This follows the example of Britain and America that have given their own developers a tremendous boost from this treasure-trove of data.
AI developers and the legal community in Germany have their work cut out for them to reach workable solutions to a host of legal issues currently unresolved.
A lack of legal certainty will put the brakes on Germany’s progress towards becoming a global leader in AI, even if they have excellence in the technical sense. Substantial progress is being made in the United States and elsewhere in this regard, and there is no apparent reason why Germany cannot also.
These issues include matters such as whether AI is a legal entity capable of entering into contractual agreements and how remedies will be applied in the event of default. In the United States, some non-human entities are already deemed to have rights and legal responsibilities, namely corporations. In order to move forwards, AI will also be afforded legal status.
Likewise, if AI is a legal entity that is capable of being injured, what protections should there be from those who would inflict harm?
If AI breaks the law, how to make it accountable? If a self-driving vehicle has an accident, who is liable? Is it the AI or the person who wrote the computer code? Is it the manufacturer? Or is it the driver/owner?
These are just a few of the issues that must be made manageable in a legal sense if the German AI industry is to prosper as the German electrical technology did.
A hundred years ago, when electricity came into widespread use, whole new industries were created, made possible by that enabling technology and the ingenuity of human inventors like Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, and Charles Proteus Steinmetz.
It began with existing devices that were operated manually, such as pumps and washing machines, and continued on overtime with a dazzling array of new products, all of them made possible by electricity – refrigerators, toasters, electric stoves, and blenders to name a few. Things we now take for granted.
In those early days, Germany was at the forefront of electrical technology in Europe through the work of entrepreneurs like Emil Rathenau and Werner von Siemens. Rathenau had purchased the European rights to Edison’s patents and in 1883 established the company that came to be known as Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft AG (AEG). These pioneers paved the way for other German companies to produce electrically-powered goods for the European and international markets where the “Made in Germany” label came to represent premium quality.
As AI comes of age, this grandchild of electricity will find its way into new categories of products and into existing things like phones, watches, cars, fitness trackers, home assistants as well as countless other things yet to be invented. This cornucopia of products will be the product of a marriage between engineering know-how and good design, a partnership that Germany has built their reputation upon.
If the same level of design thinking that made Germany a leader in technological innovation as far back as The Enlightenment is applied today, we are likely to see a rapid catching up to the established leaders, the United States of America, China, and Great Britain.
Of course, Germany is not a standalone entity today, it exists at the center of the larger political and economic entity of the European Union. When Germany joins forces with France and other participating E.U. states, their impact might indeed rival that of the established leaders.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.