Tech lagards

New AI association warns: Support us or the economy suffers

Toy robot walking, full length
The unhappy state of AI in Germany. Source: DPA

If we don’t act now, then in 10 years, the German economy will no longer be competitive: That’s the message from the country’s brand new Federal Association for Artificial Intelligence.

The association, which was formed in March this year and has around 50 businesses who work in the sector as members, released a position paper this week with a direct appeal to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government. The paper contains nine points that association members believe are necessary if the country is to keep up to date with modern technology.

“If we make the right decisions now then Germany will be able to play a deciding role in the next wave of artificial intelligence,” said Jörg Bienert, chairperson of the association and founder of the consultancy Aiso-lab, which specializes in the sector. “If we don’t act, in 10 years our economy is likely to no longer be competitive,” he warned.

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Germany is already well behind other countries. A study by TNS Kantar and the ZEW research institute found that only 5 percent of German industrial and services companies were attempting to use artificial intelligence, or AI, technology.

Mr. Bienert’s association is a bit more generous. It claims about 18 percent of all German companies use AI in some central facet of their business. But they also compare that to China or the US, where the figure is almost 40 percent.

The new association makes several recommendations in their paper. They want more money for research and education as well as better financial conditions and incentives for companies working in AI. Mr. Bienert also believes larger, industrial companies – particularly those with annual turnover of over €1 billion per year – should be encouraged to collaborate more with startups.

“I feel that there’s a real push right around the country at the moment,” said Chris Boos, who develops platforms for AI with his company, Arago. He says he has noticed increasing interest from small- and medium-sized German companies, but adds that more work is needed. It’s all very well encouraging industry and startups to work together but what the country really needs is an appreciation of, and interest in, AI. And that needs to start in schools, Mr. Boos said.

The German government has recognized the need to put more effort into domestic AI, but so far it’s been mostly talk. There are plans to establish an AI center and a special commission of inquiry. This Wednesday also marks the first meeting of a special “digital cabinet.” But there’s been little concrete investment to date. Which is why initiatives like that of the AI association are a step in the right direction.

Sebastian Matthes is Handelsblatt’s deputy editor-in-chief and head of digital. Dana Heide is a political correspondent for Handelsblatt in Berlin. To contact the authors: heide@handelsblatt.com, matthes@handelsblatt.com 
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