Good afternoon to you all.
Thank you for inviting me to speak at this event about the future of robotics and artificial intelligence, a highly important policy area.
Over the past couple of days, you have been discussing issues mostly from the ‘science-for-policy’ point of view; how the science you do can have a more direct impact on policy.
I would like to take a different tack and talk about how policymakers can make the best use of technology for society.
The European Union has long been a global leader in the research and development of robotics and AI. Through more than 120 research projects and other coordinated action, we have worked to promote and intensify knowledge sharing and cooperation across the entire robotics ecosystem.
Robotics can make our industry more competitive and sustainable, while helping to solve major societal challenges.
But this field now extends well beyond industry. For example, there is a growing emphasis on ‘cobots’, collaborative robots, which are set to become 30% of the market by 2027.
The impact of robots on our societies will be enormous. This is true both in what they can do – such as help us successfully navigate the twin green and digital transition – but also in how people perceive them.
According to a European Commission report, robots are increasingly seen as trustworthy. Their role helping in hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic has no doubt boosted this.
Today, I would like to outline how we can ensure a resilient EU approach to robotics, and how robotics contributes to the EU’s overall resilience.
The EU finds itself at a pivotal moment. We are not only looking to drive forward our recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, but also to build a green, digital and fair future.
In other words, we have been presented with an opportunity not just to bounce back but bounce forward.
And we have armed ourselves with the right tool in the form of ‘NextGenerationEU’, our historic 750 billion euro recovery plan, which we presented together with a revamped long-term budget.
But making the most of our resources is not necessarily straightforward. That is why we are making better use of strategic foresight in high-level policymaking.
Strategic foresight is the art of developing intelligence about the future to inform the actions of today. It is about anticipating, exploring and acting.
We must consider not only what needs to be reconstructed today but also what is required to build the EU of the future, which we cannot expect to become less disruptive.
So we need to apply strategic foresight to resilience, which will help us maintain Europe’s standing as a global, responsible leader, an economic frontrunner and role model shaping the world.
Resilience has become our policy compass, which is why it was the focus of the Commission’s first annual Strategic Foresight Report, published last September.
The Report analysed the EU’s resilience capacities, vulnerabilities and opportunities in four dimensions: social and economic; geopolitical; green; and digital.
So how does robotics fit into these four categories?
First, social and economic resilience. Technology has always played a role in raising both productivity and living standards. We can see this today with the increased use of robots in many sectors, like agriculture – where AI can assist in crop monitoring and weed control – and healthcare, where robots assist in surgery and exoskeletons support rehabilitation.
But for many, concerns remain about how many jobs robots will take away from humans.
It is true that the rise of robotics could seriously disrupt existing business models and that millions of jobs – most notably lower skilled ones – might be at risk.
While this will vary across sectors and regions, robotics and AI can also help create new jobs in their stead, improved in both pay and quality.
So resilience here means investing in people, in the skills and jobs of the future – especially those linked with our green and digital transitions – while putting an increased focus on wellbeing as a barometer for the health of our society.
One concrete example: our fast-growing battery industry. According to industrial estimates, some 800-thousand workers will need to be trained – that is reskilled or upskilled – by 2025 to meet its labour needs.
But it is not just about ensuring the right level of technical skill. With 45% of new jobs in the EU by 2023 set to be highly-skilled, in sectors like robotics, we also need to ensure people are equipped to live in such an environment, for example by training children to develop critical thinking towards robots.
Second, turning to geopolitical resilience, which means boosting Europe’s open strategic autonomy in an interconnected and interdependent world, in order to secure its place in diversified next-generation global value chains.
Take again our work under the European Battery Alliance as well as the European Raw Materials Alliance.
This can both improve cost efficiency and prevent over-dependency in strategic areas, including AI and robotics, which play important roles in sectors such as cybersecurity, space and defence.
While open to foreign investment, Europe should also seek to safeguard its key assets, including its critical companies and infrastructures, notably through the Foreign Direct Investment Screening mechanism.
The EU’s regulatory capabilities are also important in international cooperation. We should aim to lead the way in developing trustworthy and human-centric technology.
Ultimately, we should look to European standards to have a significant influence on emerging global ones, through bilateral relations and action in multilateral forums.
Third, the green dimension of resilience. This means making the most of the green transition – for example, exploiting our urban areas to the full by repurposing office buildings and car parks to bring nature back to cities.
But it also means utilising technology to meet our ambitious plans to become the first climate-neutral society by 2050. For example, industrial robots can help us reduce waste and increase efficiency.
And AI and robotics can significantly reduce the weight of factors, such as location of production, with delivery capability, sustainability and the carbon footprint of transport increasingly coming into focus.
In this, we must take into account the entire impact of new technologies on the environment. For example, the carbon footprint of the production of ICT devices and the energy consumed by our digital lifestyles throughout the life cycle of our devices.
Notably, I believe ‘science for policy’ could contribute greatly to greening the ICT sector, and AI and robotics in particular, by supporting the development of standards and best practices.
Finally, there is the digital dimension of resilience. We must continue to develop a strong ecosystem in Europe by investing into our digital infrastructure, exploiting industrial data or addressing regulatory complexities. And at the same time, by fostering trust and participation.
Robotics and AI will play a key role in this. The European robotics sector is already world-leading in terms of technological excellence.
But to make it more resilient, and to increase our open strategic autonomy, we must continue to invest in research and development to advance European interests and strengthen competitiveness.
Having funded one of the world’s largest civilian robotics programmes under Horizon 2020, the EU will maintain a strong focus on robotics and AI research under the Horizon Europe programme – with funding of 20 billion euros per year this decade on average, public and private investment combined.
In addition, the AI part of the Digital Europe Program will devote over 2 billion euros to technologies like robotics.
The new Public-Private Partnership in AI, Data and Robotics will take this to the next level. It will foster cross-pollination of research within these three communities as well as between industry and users, and will contribute to the overall resilience of the robotics ecosystem.
Making the most of new technologies, not least in the field of AI and robotics, is paramount if we are to overcome the challenges – and make the most of the opportunities – which stand before us.
I strongly believe that making greater use of strategic foresight can help put your incredible work in this field to best use.
Source: “Not Checked against delivery” Speech by Vice-President Šefčovič at Conference on Robotics (europa.eu)
Photo Credit : https://pixabay.com/fr/photos/connexion-main-humaine-robot-touch-3308188/