EU Science Hub

Artificial intelligence and digital transformation: early lessons from the coronavirus crisis

Containment measures resulted in a massive surge of activity online for education, business, public administration, research and social interaction
Containment measures resulted in a massive surge of activity online for education, business, public administration, research and social interaction
Jul 27 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has acted as a booster for artificial intelligence, but concerns about security, potential misuse of data and growing inequalities remain

Only eighteen months after the publication of the report "Artificial Intelligence: a European Perspective", JRC scientists provide an update on the developments in the sector that has undergone a transformation in a matter of a couple of months.

"The pandemic caused something akin to a natural experiment. It has exposed us to unprecedented conditions, forcing us to react in ways unimaginable just six months ago. Four months into this global crisis, we can recognise that COVID has acted as booster to the adoption of AI but also as an amplifier of potential opportunities and threats", says JRC researcher Max Craglia.

The pandemic boost to AI adoption

The researchers noted an increased adoption and use of AI in scientific and medical research, in particular in applications such as telemedicine, medical diagnosis, epidemiological studies, and clinical management of patients.

There was also a shift in attitudes towards AI and data sharing. According to the study, the crisis resulted into a greater acceptance of robots in the workplace and of data sharing for the monitoring of the spread of the virus.

Similarly, the crisis made it possible to overcome barriers in the sharing of data between commercial entities, and between business and governments. JRC work on the monitoring of the spread of the virus using data provided by private mobile network operators is one good example of this positive development.

The jump start to digital transformation

The lockdown resulted in a massive surge of activity online for education, business, public administration, research and social interaction.

"The pandemic gave a boost to the digital transition of companies, public administrations and schools. Plans that had maybe dragged on for years, had to be implemented at very short notice, overcoming many technological, organisational, skill gaps, and cultural barriers", Max comments.

As another positive development, teleworking gained wider acceptance as part of the normal working arrangements, with potential social and environmental benefits.

The authors remain cautious as to how permanent these changes are and what proportion of leisure, education and work will continue to take place online in the post-COVID period.

The crucial role of governance in data processing

The COVID-19 crisis has also raised a number of societal, ethical and policy challenges.

Some of them are connected to the increased use of digital tools during the confinement, as well as the use of AI, apps and consequently, data.

The crisis underlined the absolutely critical role of the governance of digital data in modern societies.

How data is collected, by whom, for what purpose, how it is accessed, shared and re-used have become central questions during the crisis.

"There were concerns about the possible misuse of people’s private data for purposes other than contact tracing or the monitoring of the spread of the virus. It is absolutely crucial that governments remain accountable and transparent to their citizens. The crisis cannot be an excuse to disrespect human rights or advance authoritarianism", said JRC author Lucia Vesnic-Alujevic.

Dependency on non-European platforms

The lockdown also highlighted the European dependency on non-European collaborative platforms and accelerated the process of market polarisation on big digital platforms.

These platforms became critical in connecting users, organisations and content, and the vast majority of them are American or Chinese.

When using these tools, Europeans provide valuable intelligence to the platform operators. This means that these companies have been able to gather additional intelligence about every aspect of the European economy and society, which they can use for profiling, targeting - or manipulation.

This dependency adds to the cybersecurity concerns. The number of cyber-attacks increased during the crisis, as did well-orchestrated misinformation campaigns aimed at undermining social cohesion and trust in the institutions.

Need to strengthen European technological and data sovereignty

The report calls for a strong coordination to strengthen European technological and data sovereignty and address the increasing inequalities.

"At EU level great attention is already paid to technological and data sovereignty and this crisis has only confirmed that we are right to attach so much importance to these questions", Max Craglia said.

The report also highlights how the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the lockdown and accelerated digital transition, has widened the gap between the wealthier and poorer segments in society.

But the authors remain optimistic.

"We have a lot of know-how and good policy instruments in the EU. The European Strategy for Data, the Digital Europe Programme, the Horizon Europe research programme and the Recovery package will help us bounce forward. Connecting these instruments with a particular regard to strengthening European technological and data sovereignty and reducing the increasing inequalities would enable us to address these challenges and exploit the opportunities better", Max concludes.  

European approach to AI

The JRC report builds on the knowledge and initiatives linked to AI at EU level, including the Coordinated Plan on AI in partnership with the Member States, which aims to boost public-private investment in AI, develop national AI strategies, foster the diffusion of trustworthy AI technologies and applications, and prepare European society by adapting its learning and training programmes.

The AI Watch was launched in January 2019 to monitor the implementation of the Coordinated plan and assess the adoption and impacts of AI for Europe.

The importance of AI for the future of Europe was recognised at an early stage by the current Commission, which promotes a human-centric and trustworthy approach to AI with an important emphasis on technological and data sovereignty.

The commitment towards a European approach to AI has already resulted in the adoption of a Communication in February 2020 on Shaping Europe’s Digital Future, including a White Paper on AI launching a broad consultation on a risk-based approach to regulating AI, and a European Strategy for Data establishing a set of European data spaces in key strategic sectors.