The United Kingdom is slowly but surely approaching its most important foreign policy move in decades, when it will break off from the European economic and political union that it has been a part of since 1973. The country’s withdrawal from the European Union will be far reaching, affecting areas such as health care, politics, technology and education.
Yet Brexit – the British exit from the EU – has the potential to alter the global race for supremacy in a sector that heavily relies on financial and technological resources, individual expertise and international cooperation. The British departure will mean the union will lose the member state that is a leader in innovation, experts say.
Such a loss may weaken the EU’s bid to challenge the United States and China for global leadership in the development and application of the technology.
A substantial amount of skepticism exists in European countries about AI’s impact. Last December, after months of tinkering with a comprehensive plan that would include the bloc’s vision of artificial intelligence, experts from the EU presented a 37-page document on the impact the technology will have on member countries.
The document aimed to align the bloc with the AI research and developments happening in China and the U.S. It included guidelines and principles on “good” and ethical AI, but overall had a “negative” and “unbalanced” tone, said experts, warning more about the dangers implementing the technology poses rather than the opportunities it presents.
“It was basically about (how) AI is going to do all these terrible things and we should resist and regulate,” says Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a nonprofit public policy think tank based in Washington, D.C., that focuses on technology research. “The (only) good news about AI was (that it’s) not going to kill us.”
The U.K. has been a leader in developing artificial intelligence technology in the EU, going head to head with Germany for the top position. A 2019 McKinsey report showed that Germany led the way in AI talent, with about 850,000 developers in the country against the 830,000 in the U.K. The U.K. and Spain were the only two European countries to have two AI startups in the top 100 global ranking on AI startups.
According to a European Parliament report, the U.K. has also been among the first countries in the EU to define its AI plans, with political and business leaders starting a national conversation even before the White House announced a summit on artificial intelligence in May 2018. London is in many ways Europe’s AI capital, with numbers showing the city has more AI suppliers than New York, Paris and Berlin, lagging behind only Silicon Valley. Investments in AI startups in the U.K. totalled $1.3 billion in 2018 and overall, when talking about AI, the United Kingdom had an optimistic proactive attitude, worried about ethics, but not enough to stall innovation and progress, experts say.
“Having the U.K. leave Europe takes that voice away and makes the German and the French voices more powerful,” Atkinson says.
Editorial Cartoons on Brexit
After Brexit takes place, the Germans and the French will also be left alone to tackle the challenge of having Europe maintain its third spot in the global AI race. With the U.K. out, the European bloc’s AI strategy might be destabilized, experts say.
“The question is after Brexit will the EU without the U.K. try to compete with China and the U.S. or will it be the EU with a continuing relationship with the U.K.?” says Daniel Castro, the director of the Center for Data Innovation in Washington, D.C. “Or will it even be that maybe the U.S., the U.K. and the EU recognize that they should be working together to compete against China?”
A complicating factor: Countries remaining in the bloc are often more cautious in their approach to developing technology than the U.K.
French media has also criticized their country and the Europeans for still being “shy” and having “values to defend” against America’s and China’s aggressive pursuit of AI global dominance. While artificial intelligence represents a field to “conquer” for the United States and China, “… for us, the French, artificial intelligence is mainly an instrument that we need to control in order to improve our lives,” wrote the French daily Les Echo in March.
Both France and Germany have been more suspicious of this technology, Atkinson says, looking at AI as interfering with people’s job security and human dignity, a technology that requires heavy regulation. The United Kingdom has pursued a path to AI development that is closer to the U.S. and China, he adds, following a more relaxed approach that doesn’t stall innovation.
“They’re much more like the United States which use the ‘innovation principle’ which is to say technology is usually pretty good; let’s keep going forward and deal with any challenges as they arise,” Atkinson says. “Losing that counterweight in Europe (will) just make the Europeans even more cautious and even more suspicious.”