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Developing Ireland’s thriving AI ecosystem

While Ireland has done much in the research and development of AI, more investment is needed if we are to achieve our aim to be a digital leader in Europe

Earlier in the year Emmanuel Macron announced a €1.5 billion investment in AI in France and last week Angela Merkel announced a €3 billion investment in AI in Germany. Photograph: Reuters/Hannibal Hanschke

Earlier in the year Emmanuel Macron announced a €1.5 billion investment in AI in France and last week Angela Merkel announced a €3 billion investment in AI in Germany. Photograph: Reuters/Hannibal Hanschke

 

Artificial intelligence has had a much more significant role in day-to-day life in recent years. The ability of a computer to observe and learn from patterns has been the driving force behind new technology – from alarms that can monitor our sleep cycles and tell us the best time to wake up, to the GPS systems that can redirect us on alternative routes in rush hour, the everyday uses of AI are increasing. But the real potential for AI lies in how it is used behind the scenes, analysing big data, and that is also the area where Ireland has the ability to lead.

“Ireland stands out in the field of AI on a number of fronts, including the innovative ecosystem that has developed over the past few years that supports and fosters disruptive thinking, the access we have to global tech giants, the breadth and depth of talent that exists in our workplace and the spirit of entrepreneurialism,” says Owen Lewis, partner in management consulting at KPMG Ireland. “Coupling this with some global heavyweights in AI, both in academic and professional circles, then I can only see growth in this capability.”

The real challenge, according to Lewis, is retaining talent: “Our challenge remains how we retain talent when such amazing opportunities exist for home-grown talent to be snapped up abroad. This is where Government policies need to continue to support local innovation and investment, and our success on the global stage for home-grown start-ups needs to be supported. Ireland is clearly capable to achieve this and requires us all to keep our eyes on the future as we consider priorities in Government investments, education and regulatory agility.”

Ireland may not be leading the way in the consumer branch of AI, but it has a rich history in advanced research and development of AI through universities and research institutes, which are often collaborations between academic institutions and the many large multinational tech companies that are based here.

“Ireland has a strong and thriving AI ecosystem,” says Gerard Doyle, network manager for technology at Skillnet, the national agency for workforce learning. “By far the greatest role that Ireland has played in the development of AI is in advanced research and development, primarily within specialist centres within our universities,” he says.

“This is evidenced in the scope of the regular AI and cognitive science conferences dating back to 1988 – Ireland’s primary forum for researchers with interests in the fields of artificial intelligence and data science.”

With such a history of research, and with the collaboration of multinationals like Microsoft, IBM, and Apple, is there the need for Government policy to secure the future growth of the AI industry in Ireland?

‘Hugely supportive’

“The Irish State has been hugely supportive of the development of every aspect of the Irish AI ecosystem” says Doyle. “Despite this, Irish organisations are not as strong as their European counterparts in the adoption and application of artificial intelligence technologies.”

A study published in October 2018 by Microsoft and Ernst & Young, Artificial Intelligence in Europe, profiled the AI strategies within more than 250 companies across Europe.

“According to the research, almost two thirds [65 per cent)] of organisations expect AI to have a high impact on their core business,” says Doyle, “this compares with just 40 per cent for Ireland. However, that places us with the likes of Sweden and Denmark, but well behind leaders Portugal.”

The Government is currently seeking to revise its role in this area, and recently closed public consultation for the development of a new National Digital Strategy, the aim of which is “to position Ireland to maximise the opportunities of digital transformation for the benefit of our society and economy”.

For some, the State could be much more supportive. “I think Ireland needs to do much more around AI,” says Kieran McCorry, national technology officer at Microsoft Ireland, speaking about the Government’s recent strategic policies. “If you look at Ireland 2040, there is hardly any reference to AI in it whatsoever. Lots of talk about building infrastructure, but no real reference to AI.

“You need look no further than our neighbours in Europe. Earlier in the year Emmanuel Macron announced a €1.5 billion investment in AI in France. Just last week, Angela Merkel announced a €3 billion investment in AI in Germany.

“In Ireland, we have this ambition to be a digital leader within Europe, but in order to realise it we need to make investment in it. That needs to be investment in terms of direction, and also of course, financial investment.”

Public awareness of the potential of AI also needs to increase, suggests McCorry, who is keenly aware of the power of big data analysis, and the trust necessary to provide that data. “My role as NTO for Microsoft is really about what technology means for people. I am very focused on Government and public-sector bodies. The area that excites me is the intersection between the State and citizens, and how we as a country are developing policy and technology strategies that are going to benefit citizens,” he says.

“The challenge is doing this in a secure and privacy-preserving way, doing that is as much an interest of mine as the delivery of the technology itself. They are the two sides of the same coin.

“Companies are struggling with the rapid pace of change in technology. It is difficult for policy makers to develop policy that will keep pace with the changes in technology. That is a big challenge but we at Microsoft think it is the most important thing that can help further AI’s positive impact on business and society. Ultimately, if people don’t trust it, they won’t use it”