Natural disasters, unforeseen incidents and global pandemics continue to occur in sudden and unexpected ways. While we cannot prevent them from happening, our capacity to react has starkly improved in the last century. We, as humans, have not changed: biologically speaking, our brain has not evolved in the last 200,000 years (still waiting for that “software update”!). However, the exponential acceleration of technology is now helping us to help others quasi instantly, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 public health crisis.
There are countless examples of how technology is being used throughout the EU in the fight against COVID-19 in impactful ways: hospitals are using robots to disinfect patients’ rooms; a European consortium is performing the most complex supercomputing experiment in history to identify new therapies for COVID-19, and the European Commission is investing in an Artificial Intelligence (AI) tool that will diagnose cases of COVID-19 in less than one minute.
In this sense, the pandemic has only expedited what was already happening, by encouraging the EU Member States to prioritise the deployment of emerging technologies in public administrations. It may come as no surprise to the reader that from the promising list of disruptive emerging technologies, data, AI and supercomputers are at the heart of the Member States’ digital policies in the European Semester Report. Indeed, these three technologies in particular have helped to keep businesses and public services functioning during the COVID-19 crisis, expedited the introduction of new or further development of existing digital public services, and ensured that intra-EU trade has continued to flow freely, even in times of intense socio-economic uncertainty.
To understand why these technologies are so relevant in many of the upcoming digital policies, it is important to take into account the impact of their convergence capacity. Technological convergence is the process through which technologies that were originally unrelated become closely integrated and/or unified. When the use of data, AI and supercomputers converge, between them and/or with other technologies, they accelerate the capability or performance of whichever field they are contributing to. In the case of COVID-19, for example, the analytical power made possible by data, AI and supercomputers have proven to be key assets in identifying new patterns in the spread of the virus, detecting new cases, and devising recovery strategies. They have also enabled citizens to access important public health information, grants and subsidies, and other digital public services throughout the course of the pandemic. As time goes on, we can only expect that this new trajectory of convergence in emerging technologies will continue, thus leading to new and innovative technological developments.
The question is, how can citizens reap the benefits afforded from these emerging technologies? Many Member States are addressing this issue as a priority as part of their national policy frameworks, with each country outlining unique paths toward this shared end goal. One trend identified in this year’s European Semester Report is the increased importance of eHealth initiatives. Emerging technologies are being capitalised on to help digitalise the process of collecting, analysing and sharing digital records on medical incidents, thus helping to improve health management practices. In the wake of COVID-19, where medical service providers find themselves under increased pressure, the automation and better organisation of data is absolutely crucial. In Poland, the eHealth Platform Project was launched to allow citizens and public administrations to collect, analyse and share digital records on medical events, provide eServices, and facilitate the sharing of information between medial service providers.
Emerging technologies are also increasingly being drawn on for digital public services delivery. Data is of particular importance here. Public administrations are increasingly working to improve and automate their data exchange processes in order to reduce administrative burden and prevent duplicated data requests. The Latvian government, for instance, is deploying a new framework to enhance and improve data exchange, data publication and the availability of data. A centralised information platform will be established to ensure smooth electronic data exchange between systems and make it possible for local information systems to transfer data to state information systems in a secure and open way for citizens. The findings of this year’s European Semester Report offer a more detailed image of how each Member State is capitalising on emerging technologies in the abovementioned domains and others such as eJustice, eProcurement, eSkills and more, and how they can further work to improve their approach to allow citizens to fully benefit from new technological developments.
For instance, the Czech Republic launched a National AI Strategy in July 2019, which provides concrete examples of how to promote AI deployment within Europe. The government has set out priority measures to support AI development and its use in the academic, public and private sectors. As a result, the AI Observatory and Forum of the Czech Republic was established at the end of 2019 to contribute to the European discussion on future regulation of AI in the EU. Meanwhile in Germany, the Federal Government has adopted a framework to shape the future development and application of AI, to foster innovation in this domain and enhance the efficiency of German public administrations.
With regard to supercomputing, Luxembourg has recently acquired a supercomputer known as MeluXina, with the ability to process enormous quantities of data in seconds. The supercomputer will bring immense benefits for citizens, as it will be used for personalised medicine and eHealth projects and make high-performance computing accessible to Luxembourgish businesses of all sizes, including SMEs and start-ups. A skills centre has been established to guide and support companies with limited supercomputing skills about how they can benefit from this shared public good. In Germany, the Federal Government has adopted a framework to shape the future development and application of AI, to foster innovation in this domain and enhance the efficiency of German public administrations.
However, in order to make the most of the emerging technologies, Europeans need to advance together. For that reason, the Commission has also addressed the question of how to help citizens benefit from data, AI and supercomputers within the Digital Europe Programme. The programme, part of the 2021-2027 Multiannual Financial Framework, is committed to reinforcing Europe’s digital capabilities in emerging technologies, with an emphasis on the deployment of such technologies for businesses and citizens across Europe and increasing the EU’s competitive edge. One of the key actions of the Digital Europe Programme is the Shaping Europe’s Digital Future strategy, which will guide the transformation of the European Union and ensure the effective implementation of digital and interoperable public administration in the Member States. The strategy explores and proposes four pillars to help us build Europe’s digital future: technology that works for people; a fair and competitive digital economy; an open, democratic and sustainable digital society, and the positioning of Europe as a global digital player.
Furthermore, as part of the Shaping Europe’s Digital Future strategy, the White Paper on Artificial Intelligence was published in February 2020, outlining the European Commission’s proposed approach to the regulation of AI. The paper aims to promote Europe’s capacity to innovate in this domain while simultaneously supporting the development and uptake of ethical and trustworthy artificial intelligence throughout the European Union, particularly in public administrations. While the Commission has yet to initiate a legislative process in this domain, the White Paper marks a step in the right direction and highlights the Commission’s commitment to increasing the use of AI and other emerging technologies in public administration.
The focus on data, AI, and supercomputing as part of the Digital Europe Programme and its associated strategies and publications highlight their importance in bolstering Europe’s competitive edge in the domain of digital public administration. Looking at the post-COVID-19 recovery, it is clear that the analytical power made possible by these emerging technologies will be decisive in helping public administrations to improve the delivery of digital public services through innovative e-initiatives, including eHealth, eJustice, eGovernment and more.
To learn more about what is happening please check the following sources:
- The Recovery plan for Europe;
- The European Digital Strategy;
- JRC’s paper on public sector modernization for EU Recovery and Resilience;
- The Berlin Declaration.
Authors: Patricia Bachmaier & Clare O'Donohoe