Are a skills gap and delusional thinking losing the AI race for Europe?

Supply and demand woefully out of sync again as Europeans falter

Job killer or job creator? The debate over whether or not AI will decimate or create jobs in the future has been raging for a few years now and while 2018 was a massive year for AI hype, it was also significant for its development.

There are, according to a Harvey Nash Tech Survey, four in ten organisations now using AI in a commercial way, moving beyond experimentation. A recent report from Dun and Bradstreet claims 40 percent of respondents from a survey of 100 execs from Forbes Global 2000 businesses are adding more jobs as a result of AI deployment, with only eight per cent saying they were axing jobs because of AI implementation. In January this year, research firm Gartner revealed that despite talent shortages, the percentage of enterprises employing AI grew 270 per cent in four years.

While most of this is, in all likelihood, machine learning, the intention is clear. Businesses increasingly want to use data science, analytics and automation in their products and infrastructures and are prepared to invest.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) has been bullish. It estimates in its recent Innovate Europe report that AI is a €2.7 trillion opportunity for Europe. Who knows, it may be right, but is Europe really up to it? Is there really enough investment and impetus in European AI development and education to make this a reality?

Two of the biggest issues facing Europe are skills and funding. To some extent, formal education is always going to be behind the curve when it comes to feeding industry with the latest skills, and governments are not always the quickest in recognising and capitalising on the latest tech opportunities. It was only really midway through 2018 that we saw anything in terms of solid initiatives from the UK and Europe and there is little to suggest it will solve the growing skills problem.

"What's becoming clear from our experience is the demand for AI skills (combining behavioural learning, data science, Python, TensorFlow and big data handling) is currently outstripping supply by a big margin and it's a problem that's getting worse," says Dominic Harvey, director at UK IT job board CWJobs. "Regardless of the skills that companies are after, I fail to see a scenario now or in the near future where any emerging tech brand or company will have enough skilled candidates ready. The problem is particularly acute when it comes to recruiting data scientists, with some reports estimating as many as 15,000 vacancies across Europe."

Back in June last year the UK Government released a paper called House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence AI in the UK: ready, willing and able? Government Response. It highlighted the need for funding PhD places in AI and machine learning and a public/private funding scheme to make it work. The aim was to inject some much-needed impetus into AI skills development, as well as propel the UK government's AI Sector Deal.

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