Ir­ish in­vest­ment in AI lags be­hind some coun­tries

More in­vest­ment is needed if coun­try is to achieve aim to be dig­i­tal leader in Europe

The Irish Times - Business - - ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE - DAVE PHILLIPS

Ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence has had a much more sig­nif­i­cant role in day-to-day life in re­cent years.

The abil­ity of a com­puter to ob­serve and learn from pat­terns has been the driv­ing force be­hind new tech­nol­ogy – from alarms that can mon­i­tor our sleep cy­cles and tell us the best time to wake up, to the GPS sys­tems that can re­di­rect us on al­ter­na­tive routes in rush hour, the ev­ery­day uses of AI are in­creas­ing.

But the real po­ten­tial for AI lies in how it is used be­hind the scenes, analysing big data, and that is also the area where Ire­land has the abil­ity to lead.

“Ire­land stands out in the field of AI on a num­ber of fronts, in­clud­ing the in­no­va­tive ecosys­tem that has de­vel­oped over the past few years that sup­ports and fos­ters dis­rup­tive think­ing, the ac­cess we have to global tech gi­ants, the breadth and depth of tal­ent that ex­ists in our work­place and the spirit of en­trepreneuri­al­ism,” says Owen Lewis, part­ner in man­age­ment con­sult­ing at KPMG Ire­land.

“Cou­pling this with some global heavy­weights in AI, both in aca­demic and pro­fes­sional cir­cles, then I can only see growth in this ca­pa­bil­ity.”

The real chal­lenge, ac­cord­ing to Lewis, is re­tain­ing tal­ent. “Our chal­lenge re­mains how we re­tain tal­ent when such amaz­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties ex­ist for home-grown tal­ent to be snapped up abroad. This is where Govern­ment poli­cies need to con­tinue to sup­port lo­cal in­no­va­tion and in­vest­ment, and our suc­cess on the global stage for home-grown star­tups needs to be sup­ported. Ire­land is clearly ca­pa­ble of achiev­ing this and re­quires us all to keep our eyes on the fu­ture as we con­sider pri­or­i­ties in Govern­ment in­vest­ments, ed­u­ca­tion and reg­u­la­tory agility.”

Ire­land may not be lead­ing the way in the con­sumer branch of AI, but it has a rich his­tory in ad­vanced re­search and devel­op­ment of AI through uni­ver­si­ties and re­search in­sti­tutes, which are of­ten col­lab­o­ra­tions be­tween aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions and the many large multi­na­tional tech com­pa­nies that are based here.

“Ire­land has a strong and thriv­ing AI ecosys­tem,” says Ger­ard Doyle, net­work man­ager for tech­nol­ogy at Skill­net, the na­tional agency for work­force learn­ing. “By far the great­est role that Ire­land has played in the devel­op­ment of AI is in ad­vanced re­search and devel­op­ment, pri­mar­ily within spe­cial­ist cen­tres within our uni­ver­si­ties,” he says.

“This is ev­i­denced in the scope of the reg­u­lar AI and cog­ni­tive sci­ence con­fer­ences dat­ing back to 1988 – Ire­land’s pri­mary fo­rum for re­searchers with in­ter­ests in the fields of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and data sci­ence.”

Sup­port­ive

With such a his­tory of re­search, and with the col­lab­o­ra­tion of multi­na­tion­als such as Mi­crosoft, IBM, and Ap­ple, is there the need for Govern­ment pol­icy to se­cure the fu­ture growth of the AI in­dus­try in Ire­land?

“The Ir­ish State has been hugely sup­port­ive of the devel­op­ment of every as­pect of the Ir­ish AI ecosys­tem” says Doyle. “De­spite this, Ir­ish or­gan­i­sa­tions are not as strong as their Eu­ro­pean coun­ter­parts in the adop­tion and ap­pli­ca­tion of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence tech­nolo­gies.”

A study pub­lished in Oc­to­ber 2018 by Mi­crosoft and Ernst & Young, Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence in Europe, pro­filed the AI strate­gies within more than 250 com­pa­nies across Europe.

“Ac­cord­ing to the re­search, al­most two thirds [65 per cent] of or­gan­i­sa­tions ex­pect AI to have a high im­pact on their core busi­ness,” says Doyle. “This com­pares with just 40 per cent for Ire­land. How­ever, that places us with the likes of Swe­den and Den­mark, but well be­hind lead­ers Por­tu­gal.”

The Govern­ment is seek­ing to re­vise its role in this area, and re­cently closed pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion for the devel­op­ment of a new Na­tional Dig­i­tal Strat­egy, the aim of which is “to po­si­tion Ire­land to max­imise the op­por­tu­ni­ties of dig­i­tal trans­for­ma­tion for the ben­e­fit of our so­ci­ety and econ­omy”.

For some, the State could be much more sup­port­ive. “I think Ire­land needs to do much more around AI,” says Kieran McCorry, na­tional tech­nol­ogy of­fi­cer at Mi­crosoft Ire­land, speak­ing about the Govern­ment’s re­cent strate­gic poli­cies. “If you look at Ire­land 2040, there is hardly any ref­er­ence to AI in it what­so­ever. Lots of talk about build­ing in­fra­struc­ture, but no real ref­er­ence to AI.

“You need look no fur­ther than our neigh­bours in Europe. Ear­lier in the year Em­manuel Macron an­nounced a €1.5 bil­lion in­vest­ment in AI in France. Just last week, An­gela Merkel an­nounced a €3 bil­lion in­vest­ment in AI in Ger­many.

“In Ire­land, we have this am­bi­tion to be a dig­i­tal leader within Europe, but in or­der to re­alise it we need to make in­vest­ment in it. That needs to be in­vest­ment in terms of di­rec­tion, and also of course, fi­nan­cial in­vest­ment.”

Pub­lic aware­ness of the po­ten­tial of AI also needs to in­crease, sug­gests McCorry, who is keenly aware of the power of big data anal­y­sis, and the trust nec­es­sary to pro­vide that data. “My role as NTO for Mi­crosoft is re­ally about what tech­nol­ogy means for peo­ple. I am very fo­cused on Govern­ment and pub­lic-sec­tor bod­ies. The area that ex­cites me is the in­ter­sec­tion be­tween the State and ci­ti­zens, and how we as a coun­try are de­vel­op­ing pol­icy and tech­nol­ogy

By far the great­est role that Ire­land has played in the devel­op­ment of AI is in ad­vanced re­search and devel­op­ment, pri­mar­ily within spe­cial­ist cen­tres in our uni­ver­si­ties

strate­gies that are go­ing to ben­e­fit ci­ti­zens,” he says.

“The chal­lenge is do­ing this in a se­cure and pri­vacy-pre­serv­ing way, do­ing that is as much an in­ter­est of mine as the de­liv­ery of the tech­nol­ogy it­self. They are the two sides of the same coin.

“Com­pa­nies are strug­gling with the rapid pace of change in tech­nol­ogy. It is dif­fi­cult for pol­icy mak­ers to de­velop pol­icy that will keep pace with the changes in tech­nol­ogy. That is a big chal­lenge but we at Mi­crosoft think it is the most im­por­tant thing that can help fur­ther AI’s pos­i­tive im­pact on busi­ness and so­ci­ety. Ul­ti­mately, if peo­ple don’t trust it, they won’t use it”

PHO­TO­GRAPH: HAN­NI­BAL HANSCHKE/REUTERS

Both French pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron and Ger­man chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel have an­nounced bil­lion-euro in­vest­ments in AI.

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