ELLIS (European Laboratory for Learning and Intelligent Systems) is a European grassroots initiative in AI with a focus on scientific excellence, innovation and societal impact, working towards the creation of a multi-centric European AI Lighthouse.
During the last two years, ELLIS has set up a network of 34 units in 14 countries across Europe and Israel, committing more than 300 Mio EUR of their own funding towards building a joint AI lighthouse. The units include most of the leading existing European AI sites, jointly advocating the foundation of a set of dedicated ELLIS institutes in European countries. In a major step towards this goal, a contract for a significant private endowment and accompanying public funding to build the first such institute has just been announced.
Europe’s ambition is to be a world-leader in AI: a leading light in technology development, a global hub for talent and AI innovations that benefit society, and a driving force for regulatory frameworks that foster trustworthy AI deployment. In the face of global competition for AI leadership, achieving European excellence in AI will require investments in AI research and innovation that build on Europe’s unique strengths. Recognising this need, the European Commission proposes to build on current networks of AI excellence, leveraging these existing investments to increase the impact of European AI research. Together, these centres can act as a distributed European AI lighthouse – a beacon for European AI research that projects Europe’s influence internationally, while also sharing the benefits of AI technologies across European nations and citizens.
The European Laboratory for Learning and Intelligence Systems (ELLIS) fully supports a multi-centric excellence-driven approach and calls on Governments of EU Member States and Members of the European Parliament to support this proposal in their consideration of the Commission’s AI Strategy and associated legislation.
A pan-European lighthouse aligns with both the EU’s strategic objectives for AI and real- world experiences of which interventions are effective in supporting AI research and adoption. These highlight that:
For communities and industries across Europe to benefit from AI advances, AI research and translation must be embedded in local ecosystems. AI is a pervasive technology and its value to European society will only be realised if access to AI is as broadly distributed as possible. Harnessing this potential requires interfaces that facilitate technology adoption across all industry sectors, the public sector, and different sizes of businesses. Those interfaces must distribute insights widely and be responsive to needs ‘on the ground’. A decentralised system is best positioned to fulfil these functions.
Connected, regional networks of excellence offer the best opportunity for Europe to attract and retain high-quality AI talent. Europe is already home to several centres of AI excellence, which are highly visible and competitive on the international stage. This should be leveraged for the benefit of the wider continent, coordinating across centres to attract talent and skills to all of the EU.
Europe needs an agile response to AI. Nations across the world are implementing AI strategies and investment plans with the intention of securing AI leadership. The EU needs to act fast in strengthening Europe’s global position in AI. At the same time, AI research and innovation is advancing at pace, creating new technological opportunities and questions about its position in society. Multi-centric networks can double down on existing strengths and thus offer an agile mechanism to promote world-leading European AI research, while responding to societal issues or concerns through closer engagement between AI researchers, policymakers and the public.
“AI made in Europe” should reflect and leverage Europe’s culture and diversity. Europe’s strength comes from its diversity, a sense of purpose, and a tradition of excellence -- all three key catalysts for disruptive innovation. Having a well-connected network of strong regional ecosystems offers a versatile, diverse, and robust approach to developing outstanding AI. Europe needs a network of regional lighthouses for AI, so that its benefits can be shared with and distributed to every company (big and small), start-up, institution and citizen.
ELLIS has already demonstrated how a decentralised, pan-European excellence-driven approach to AI research and innovation can help secure European AI leadership. In its first 3 years, it has attracted 3000 applications from students and researchers seeking to work
in European AI labs, created a tightly-knit community of more than 800 excellent AI scientists, including 158 ERC grant winners, and built a network of 34 ELLIS units, selected on the basis of scientific excellence, which have committed more than 300M Euro of their own funding for an initial period of five years. The strength of engagement with ELLIS from researchers across the EU illustrates the desire in the European AI community to collaborate in a distributed network that is built on bringing together outstanding scientists who want to make a difference.
ELLIS emphasises the importance to keep the focus on excellence instead of symbolic strength through geographic concentration into a single site. Ideas for a centralised approach in developing the European AI landscape run the risk of undermining the wider goals of the EU's AI strategy. While meeting no immediate need – AI research does not require access to centralised, expensive and unique physical facilities and infrastructures in the way that fields such as particle physics might require – a central research body risks isolating AI research from the sectors, research communities and citizens that it should serve. Faced with a situation where a centralised site in a single member country absorbs large parts of future EU funding, but not the talent (which is the most likely outcome), AI talent currently working at the most dynamic European centres of AI excellence may even consider moving to top AI hotspots overseas.
A multi-centric laboratory with strong institutions in all parts of Europe will generate real innovation for Europe, best leverage Europe’s cultural diversity, and integrate European values in the development of future technology. This will ensure that Europe does not become a mere consumer of AI technology developed elsewhere, building on other values, but instead builds a genuine “AI made in Europe”.