Is Europe still relevant in the AI race?

Brains and talent will not suffice if Europe wants to keep up in the current AI race. We’ll also need courage and capital.

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April 7, 2023

The hype and commotion around generative AI has climbed to record highs in the recent weeks. A very big part of that was triggered by OpenAI’s recent release of its pretty mind-blowing AI model GPT-4 which is now able to process images as well as text and said to be generally better at creative tasks and problem-solving.

But weirdly enough, despite all of its accomplishments, many people still think it's a hype. They tend to describe ChatGPT as some kind of really efficient bullshitter, like a crossover between Wikipedia and a slick second hand car salesman offering crazy discounts. I do not see it as a hype, though.

ChatGPT truly has the potential to become an indispensable tool.

A digital copilot

To give an example: I'm working on a new book as we speak, which has the working title The Never Normal. And it is the first time that I can use a tool like ChatGPT for that. It doesn’t replace me as a writer, but it has become some kind of permanent sounding board. Like a digital copilot. I write a piece and then I submit it to ChatGPT which goes on to provide extra insights, different formulations or extra input. This has done wonders for my creative process. Once that ChatGPT is (even more) fully integrated into our mail programs or Word processors, we will experience mind-blowing productivity gains.

In my career I have had the pleasure of witnessing some pretty major fundamental technological shifts. The very first one happened in the mid-1990s. That’s when the rise of the world wide web triggered this huge wave of digitization. The mobile revolution - connecting all of us anytime and anywhere - was obviously the second big shift. The third was the evolution to the cloud, which has allowed us to scale our computing needs almost instantly and at very reasonable prices (at least compared to before the cloud).

I believe that AI is the fourth major revolution.

Europe even further behind

The tragic part of these incredible technological revolutions is that each one of them has pushed Europe even further behind the dominant continents. The first shift put companies like Amazon and Google on the map as global players. The second polarized the world into Android and iOS, neatly divided between Apple and Google. In the world of the cloud, the top players to emerge were Microsoft Azure and Amazon's AWS. The peloton behind this leading group – players like Google, IBM or Oracle - follows at a considerable distance.

But the European participants are basically disqualified, outside of the time limit.

I had high hopes for us in 2019, though, when the European Commission launched the Gaia-X project which was designed to help us close this cloud gap. I remember brilliant speeches, ambitious goals and dazzling PowerPoints. We Europeans would really show those American hotshots what we were made of. Four years later, Gaia-X has completely disappeared from the radar. And European businesses have fully embraced the American cloud players.

So, I’ll take the educated guess that this fourth major technological battle will not be won by Europe either. What is clear, though, is that huge amounts of money are currently flowing into this AI arms race. OpenAI had already used up a considerable amount of venture capital and it recently refueled $ 10 billion from Microsoft. We just know that Microsoft and Google will do and invest just about anything to win the race for AI supremacy.

And that's where the (European) shoe pinches. I don't really see a European player, let alone the European Union, investing 10 billion euros in the development of a Large Language Model AI concept. Don’t get me wrong. We do have the brains. The talent over here is absolutely abundant. But courage and capital will be of the essence if Europe wants to keep participating in this race.

This piece is an adaptation of an earlier one that was published in Dutch in De Tijd and on Peter's own website.

Peter Hinssen
Peter Hinssen
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April 7, 2023