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Germany lags on AI

December 29, 2019

The US and China are leaders in developing AI applications. But many Germans still have reservations about this technology. Now, German industry is urging greater progress, as Sabine Kinkartz reports from Berlin.

Picture showing 0s and 1s on a warping surface
Image: picture-alliance/360-Berlin/J. Knappe

Smart devices equipped with voice-controlled virtual assistants are ubiquitous today — and probably featured under many Christmas trees this holiday season. These systems can be prompted to play music, switch the lights and television on, do online shopping, answer manifold questions and much more. In short, they are already making everyday life much easier for us. 

But in return, they feed back large quantities of user data to the major tech companies behind these devices. And many of them are even fitted with cameras and facial recognition technology.

Amazon, Alibaba, Google, Facebook, Apple and many other big tech companies are busily gathering and processing our data with the help of special software. They analyze consumer preferences to develop user profiles for targeted advertising. Artificial intelligence (AI) is not only used for such marketing purposes, of course, though this is where many consumers are already experiencing what this technology can already do today.

So far, AI still does not rival human intelligence. But self-learning computers are already capable of processing and analyzing vast quantities of data in short periods of time.

Read more: When smart devices pass secrets to the police

Everyone is after data

US tech companies capitalize on our data by selling it or using it to send us targeted advertising. In China, meanwhile, such data is processed with the help of AI and software capable of recognizing facial features and gaits. This is done to control Chinese citizens and force them into conformity.

Dieter Janecek, a lawmaker in the German parliament and member of the Greens, warns that such technology could "lead us straight into a total surveillance state." Janecek, who cares deeply about Europeans' civil rights, says "we don't want this to happen here." That is why he says Europe must become a real alternative to the US and China and develop AI technology that honors European values.

Dieter Janecek
Janecek's advice is to turn off AlexaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Sommer

Together with numerous other MPs, Janecek contributes to a parliamentary committee on AI that aims to investigate "the chances and challenges represented by new technologies." The committee, which will be disbanded by fall 2020, has already submitted its first interim report on how AI will impact the healthcare sector, the economy and the German state. After this it will look into its effect on the labor market, German media and transport.

Read more: Minister, what's a European artificial intelligence?

German lawmakers divided over AI

The commission is deeply divided over whether AI should be welcomed or treated with utmost caution. Members of Germany's environmentalist Greens, socialist Left Party and some center-left Social Democrats are predominately skeptical of this new technology. But Ronja Kemmer of the center-right Christian Democrats  worries that such an attitude could hurt Germany, saying that "if we allow every potential risk or mistake of an AI system to become an obstacle, there will be no innovation." Kemmer thinks this could leave Germany playing catch-up. 

One of the biggest bones of contention is the issue of data privacy. Joana Cotar of Germany's far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party says that Germans "have a tendency to demonize the gathering and processing of data on principle." But, she says, if hospitals were to collect and analyze data to reduce the number of deaths and devise new treatment methods, this would surely be a good thing. That is why she wants Germany's General Data Protection Regulation to be amended. Cotar thinks that Germans should no longer fear giving up personal data provided it is anonymized and pseudonymized.

Read more: Protecting children from voice assistants' data collection zeal 

A man comes out of a Chinese clothing store past a facial recognition system
In China, unstaffed shops using facial recognition technology are already part of everyday lifeImage: Imago Images/Xinhua/Li Yuze

World won't wait for Germany

Social Democratic lawmaker Rene Röspel, too, highlights the danger of data surveillance and insists that "AI should serve humanity" and contribute to sensible societal progress. But what, exactly, does "sensible" progress mean? And for how much longer does Germany intend to debate this issue while other nations already move ahead?

Ronja Kemmer is certain that "the world will not wait" for Germany to open up to AI technology. She says other nations are already investing billions in this sector, and that "we need to get moving fast." She believes that AI "Made in Europe" could be a success — though she stresses that this depends on scientific and technological progress as well as sustainable business models being developed.

AI and empty trucks

US and China lead the way

The US and China are already way ahead of Europe with regard to AI technology. Back in 2016, under President Barack Obama, the US devised its first AI strategy. Each year, the US state invests $1.5 billion (€1.3 billion) in AI research and development.

A study by Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation found that the reasons why the US is the global leader in AI stem from the fact that it "generates the most influential research papers on AI, has some 3,000 doctoral scholars working in this field each year and boasts about 1,400 AI startups and seven of the world's leading tech companies." On top of this, the study says that over the past 40 years, US universities, state agencies and companies have developed a close-knit cooperative network.

Selbstfahrendes Auto von Google
The US company Google has been forging ahead with self-driving vehicles for yearsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

China looking to set standards

But that dominance is waning. In the summer of 2017, the Chinese State Council presented its national AI strategy, which is set out in three stages: catching up with the US by 2020, overtaking it by 2025 and leading the way globally from 2030. China is investing a lot to achieve these goals. Beijing has announced it will provide €16.4 billion to promote the chip industry. The city of Tianjin alone has put aside a fund of €12.8 billion for advancing AI.

Compared with this, Germany is lagging far behind. In November 2018, the government approved its AI strategy. Some €3 billion are to be made available to implement it, but in the financial planning up to 2023, only €1 billion in subsidies is budgeted for. Debate is continuing over where the rest of the money should come from. Only two of the 100 AI professorships that have been announced have been filled so far.

Read more: China launches compulsory face scans for new phone users 

Focus on industry?

This AI strategy is facing criticism from many quarters, including the Federation of German Industries (BDI), which is calling for more budget funds. In a policy paper on artificial intelligence, the BDI also provides recommendations for other steps to take.  A central demand made in the paper is for Germany to concentrate on AI applications that are of use to industry and for it to develop its own focus and competence in this area. It says that German industry is already a global leader in the field of intelligent automation, intelligent sensor technology and robotics and that this should be built upon. The paper cites hybrid AI as an example. This field includes models in which human expert knowledge and machine-based learning methods are combined.

The BDI paper says that US companies dominated in the area of data-driven applications and platforms in the private consumer sector, while China was strong on national security and online trading. "Germany and Europe will not be able to hold their own against international competition if they focus on the same areas," it says.DW sends out a daily selection of the day's news and features. Sign up here.