Leading politicians from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrat party (CDU) met on Wednesday in Berlin to discuss plans for a new German-Franco artificial intelligence institute. “We cannot leave this field to the Chinese and Americans,” said Tobias Hans, premier minister of the state of Saarland, which borders France.
AI allows computers to take on tasks that have up to now required human intelligence such as visual recognition, speech recognition and decision-making. It has vast economic potential but China and the US are well ahead of Germany in researching the technology, which is also known as machine learning.
China plans to invest more than €50 billion in AI research by 2025 and to build a business and research park to attract companies from all around the world. In the last 30 years, the German government has provided just €500 million in state aid for AI-related research.
That’s not good enough, especially for a country like Germany that is heavily dependent on exporting state-of-the-art machinery and cars at a time when both those sectors are on the brink of revolutionary change driven by AI. The Germans have a disproportionately high share of industries where AI could fuel productivity gains, said consultancy PWC in a recent study.
Think big, think Airbus
To catch up, Germany and France want to set up a new institute, bringing together universities, researchers and companies. Saarland’s capital, Saarbrücken, could be home to the new facility, because it already hosts the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence, known for its German acronym DFKI.
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the former governor of Saarland and regarded as Ms. Merkel heir-apparent, raised the idea for the new AI research center in the coalition talks early this year.
It’s an ambitious plan to put Europe at the forefront of innovation in AI, and it’s being given the same kind of weight as the continent’s Airbus plane-building venture. The latter started in the early 1970s as a German-Franco initiative and has turned into a global rival of Boeing.
Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer and fellow CDU politicians want to hammer out the details by fall and present a masterplan to Ms. Merkel. She and her French counterpart, President Emmanuel Macron, could then include it in a new cooperation deal between the two countries.
Ms. Merkel herself has made a priority of the new AI initiative and last week hosted an event with scientists, corporate managers and politicians to learn how to facilitate AI developments. Representatives of SAP and BMW pushed for better regulations that would make Germany more attractive to test and apply AI technology, attendees told Handelsblatt. BMW prefers China for test driving AI-equipped vehicles because it’s easier to get official approval.
The BMW complaint was another warning to Ms. Merkel and fellow politicians in Berlin to get things moving fast. German politicians, however, were bickering whether Saarbrücken was the right place to locate the new institute, despite the presence of the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence.
But perhaps the institute may not find its home in Germany at all. There’s only one European institution among the world’s 15 best AI research bodies — the French National Center for Scientific Research, or CNRS, according to a study by Japanese financial newspaper Nikkei and analytics group Elsevier. CNRS’ location? Paris.
Daniel Delhaes reports on politics from Berlin. He focuses on Angela Merkel’s conservative party CDU and her Bavarian ally, the CSU, and covers the topics of infrastructure and digital transformation. To contact the author: [email protected]