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On the Future of AI in Europe. Interview with Roberto Viola

by Roberto V. Zicari on October 9, 2018

“Creating a suitable ethical and legal framework is key to our European approach on AI and draft AI ethics guidelines will be developed by the end of the year.”– Roberto Viola

I have interviewed Roberto Viola, Director General of DG CONNECT (Directorate General of Communication Networks, Content and Technology) at the European Commission. We talked about the future of AI in Europe, and the new initiatives of the European Commission to foster public and private investment in AI, and to create a “Digital Europe programme”.


Q1. Companies with big data pools do have great economic power. Today, that shortlist includes USA companies such as Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Chinese companies such as Baidu. None of these companies are European.
USA and China are ahead of Europe in developing Data-driven services and solutions, often based on AI. Would you like to comment on this?

Roberto Viola: Europe is quite strong in many areas of AI: it is home to world-class researchers, labs and start-ups, and we have a strong industrial base that can be at the forefront of the adoption of AI. We can capitalise on our assets and strengthen European leadership by supporting excellence in research, particularly in areas where we already lead e.g. in robotics.

However, it is true that, overall Europe is behind in private investment in AI, compared to North America and Asia, and that is why it is crucial that the EU creates an environment that stimulates investment. Our goal is to build on our strengths and support the European entrepreneurial spirit. We must also ensure broader and easier access to services for citizens and industry and address socio-economic and legal issues, based on strong European values such as privacy and data protection.

It is important for European countries and various stakeholders to work together when trying to accomplish these things.
That is why we created the European AI Alliance. Here, everyone with an interest in AI can imagine its future shape, discuss how to maximise the benefits for everyone or debate how to develop ethical AI. I would also like to use this opportunity to invite everyone with an expertise or interest in AI to join the AI Alliance and actively participate in it.

Q2. What are in your opinion the main challenges in the adoption of AI in Europe?

Roberto Viola: The biggest challenge is the adoption of AI all over Europe by organisations of any size and in all fields, not just in the tech sector. This is a key priority for us. AI is already in use in many areas in Europe, and surveys show that the benefits of adopting AI are widely recognised by European businesses. However, only a fraction of European companies have already adopted digital technologies. This situation is particularly acute in the SME category: last year for example, only 10% of SMEs in the EU were using big data analytics, which could in turn be used to build AI technologies.

Europe can only reap the full benefits of AI if all have easy access to the technology and to related knowledge and services. That is why we focus on facilitating access for all potential users to AI technologies, in particular SMEs, companies from non-tech sectors and public administrations, and encourage them to test AI solutions. We aim to achieve this by setting up an AI-on-demand platform and via a network of Digital Innovation Hubs (DIHs). This includes both an existing network of more than 400 DIHs and a new dedicated network of AI-focused DIHs.

Q3. AI technologies can be used either to automate or to augment humans. In the first case, machines replace people, in the second case machine complements people (at least in theory). What is your take on this?

Roberto Viola: I believe that AI cannot only make the lives of workers easier, for example by helping with repetitive, strenuous or dangerous tasks but that it can also provide new solutions by supporting more people to participate and remain in the labour market, including people with disabilities. It is estimated, for example, that around 90% of road accidents are caused by human errors. AI can help to reduce this number. It is vital, however, that these new developments and uses of AI are carried out in an environment of trust and accountability. Creating a suitable ethical and legal framework is key to our European approach on AI and draft AI ethics guidelines will be developed by the end of the year.

AI will both create and destroy jobs, and it will certainly transform many of the existing jobs. AI, like other new technologies before it, is expected to change the nature of work and transform the labour market. It remains unclear what the net effect will be, and studies of the subject differ widely. However, it is obvious that our workforce will have to re-skill and up-skill to be able to master these changes. The ICT sector has created 1.8 million jobs since 2011 and the need for ICT specialists continues to grow. There are now at least 350,000 vacancies for such professionals in Europe pointing to significant skills gaps. Preparing for these socioeconomic changes is one of the three main dimensions of the EU initiative on AI: we need to prepare society as a whole, help workers in jobs that are most likely to be transformed or to disappear, and train more specialists in AI.

Q4. The European Commission has recently proposed an approach to increase public and private investment in AI in Europe. Can you elaborate on this?

Roberto Viola: Our ambitious proposals for investment in AI include a total of EUR20 billion in public and private funding for the period 2018-2020, and then reaching a yearly average of EUR20 billion in the decade after 2020.
The Commission is stepping up its own investment to roughly EUR1.5 billion by the end of 2020 – an increase of around 70%.
The total amounts that we have proposed can be achieved if Member States and the private sector make similar investment efforts, and we are working closely with the Member States on a coordinated action plan on AI to be agreed by the end of 2018, with a view to maximising the impact of such investments at EU and national level.

Under the next multiannual budget of the EU, the Commission plans to increase its investment in AI further, mainly through two programmes: the research and innovation framework programme Horizon Europe, and a new programme called Digital Europe.
Out of a total of nearly EUR100 billion for 2021-2027 under Horizon Europe, the Commission proposes to invest EUR15 billion in the Digital and Industry cluster, which also includes AI as a key activity.

We intend to fund both research and innovation and the accelerating adoption of AI. We will support basic and industrial research, and breakthrough market-creating innovation. Building on Member States’ efforts to establish joint AI-focused research centres, the objective is to strengthen AI excellence centres across Europe by facilitating collaboration and networking between them. Furthermore, the Commission will provide support for testing and experimentation infrastructures that are open to businesses of all sizes and from all regions.

Q5. What instruments do you have to assess the impact of such a plan?

Roberto Viola: We will monitor the adoption of AI across the economy and identify potential shifts in industrial value chains caused by AI as well as societal and legal developments and the situation on the labour market.
We will also regularly evaluate progress towards our objectives. This will involve a systematic analysis of AI-related developments such as advances in AI capabilities, policy initiatives in the Member States, the application of AI solutions in different sectors of the economy, and the effects that the spread of AI applications will have on labour markets.

Q6. Professional codes of ethics do little to change peoples’ behaviour. How is it possible to define incentives for using an ethical approach to software development, especially in the area of AI?

Roberto Viola: AI has great potential benefits – ranging from making our IT systems more efficient to solving some of the world’s greatest challenges, but it also comes with considerable challenges and risks. Some AI applications may indeed raise new ethical and legal questions, for example related to liability or potentially biased decision-making.
For example, algorithms are used to review loan applications, recruit new employees and assess potential customers, and if the data are skewed the decisions recommended by such algorithms may be discriminatory against certain categories or groups.
Given such risks, there is strong demand for the EU to ensure that AI is developed and applied within an appropriate framework that promotes innovation but at the same time also protects our values and fundamental rights.

As a first step, we have initiated the process of drawing up draft AI ethics guidelines with the involvement of all relevant stakeholders. The Commission has set up a new High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence and a European AI Alliance that brings together a large number of stakeholders. They will work together in close cooperation with representatives from EU Member States to prepare draft AI ethics guidelines that will cover aspects such as the future of work, fairness, safety, security, social inclusion and algorithmic transparency.

While self-regulation can be a first stage in applying an ethical approach, public authorities must ensure that the regulatory framework that applies to AI technologies is fit for purpose and in line with our values and fundamental rights.
For example, the Commission is currently assessing the safety and national and EU liability frameworks in light of the new challenges, and we will examine whether any legislative changes are required. Evaluations of the Product Liability Directive and the Machinery Directive have already been conducted. On the evaluation of the Product Liability Directive, the Commission will issue an interpretative guidance document by mid-2019. The Commission has also carried out an initial assessment of the current liability frameworks. An expert group will help the Commission to analyse these challenges further. We will publish a report, by mid-2019, on the broader implications for, potential gaps in, and orientations for the liability and safety frameworks for AI, Internet of Things and robotics.

Q7. The European Commission has also proposed to create a “Digital Europe programme”. What is it? What are the areas that the Commission will support under such program?

Roberto Viola: Digital Europe is a new programme that builds on the EU’s Digital Single Market strategy launched in 2015 and its achievements so far, and it is aimed at aligning the next multiannual EU budget with increasing digital challenges. The total amount proposed under Digital Europe is €9.2 billion, targeting five areas of investment: digital skills, cybersecurity, high performance computing, artificial intelligence, and public administration.

€2.5 billion of Digital Europe are earmarked for AI: the funding will target in particular testing and experimentation facilities and data platforms. Digital Europe also provides for investing €700 million in supporting the development of advanced digital skills, and €1.3 billion in support for deployment projects, notably in areas like AI.

Q9. Data, AI and Intelligent systems are becoming sophisticated tools in the hands of a variety of stakeholders, including political leaders. “Under the label of “nudging,” and on massive scale, some governments are trying to steer citizens towards healthier or more environmentally friendly behaviour by means of a “nudge”—a modern form of paternalism.
The magic phrase is “big nudging“, which is the combination of big data with nudging.” Is the European Commission doing anything to avoid this in Europe?

Roberto Viola: Like every technology or tool, AI generates new opportunities, but also poses new challenges and risks. Such risks will be addressed in the draft AI ethics guidelines that will be prepared by the High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence. AI systems have to be developed and used within a framework of trust and accountability.
Citizens and businesses alike need to be able to trust the technology they interact with, and have effective safeguards protecting fundamental rights and freedoms. In order to increase transparency and minimise the risk of bias, AI systems should be developed and deployed in a manner that allows humans to understand the basis of their actions. Explainable AI is an essential factor in the process of strengthening people’s trust in such systems.

Q10. Do we need to regulate the development of artificial intelligence?

Roberto Viola: The Commission closely monitors all relevant developments related to AI and, if necessary, we will review our existing legal framework. The EU has a strong and balanced regulatory framework to build on in order to develop a sustainable approach to AI technologies. This includes high standards in terms of safety and product liability, EU-wide rules on network and information systems security and stronger protection of personal data that came into force in May 2018.


Photo R_Viola 2

Roberto Viola is Director General of DG CONNECT (Directorate General of Communication Networks, Content and Technology) at the European Commission.

He was the Deputy Director-General of DG CONNECT, European Commission from 2012 to 2015.

Roberto Viola served as Chairman of the European Radio Spectrum Policy group (RSPG) from 2012 to 2013, as Deputy Chairman in 2011 and Chairman in 2010. He was a member of the BEREC Board (Body of European Telecom Regulators), and Chairman of the European Regulatory Group (ERG).

He held the position of Secretary General in charge of managing AGCOM, from 2005 to 2012. Prior to this, he served as Director of Regulation Department and Technical Director in AGCOM from 1999 to 2004.

From 1985-1999 he served in various positions including Head of Telecommunication and Broadcasting Satellite Services at the European Space Agency (ESA).

Roberto Viola holds a Doctorate in Electronic Engineering and a Masters in Business Administration (MBA).


– European AI Alliance

– High Level Expert group on AI

– Communication Artificial Intelligence for Europe 

– European Commission website on AI policy

Digital Europe:

Link to press release:

Link to regulation page:

– According to McKinsey (2016), European companies operating at the digital frontier only reach a digitisation level of 60% compared to their US peers. Source:

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