(Bloomberg) -- At the Bristol Robotics Laboratory in southwest England, dozens of tiny metal machines were poised to dance over a shiny white surface in “swarming” experiments to track how they organize themselves and work together.
The scene at the European Union-funded facility this week mirrored what the continent is now trying to do to compete with the U.S. and China in Artificial Intelligence, or AI.
The European Commission said on Wednesday it wants to create a network of hundreds of so-called Digital Innovation Hubs like the one in Bristol. The aim is to help Europe’s companies and scientists work together to boost research and the take-up of new technologies among the thousands of small and medium-sized companies that form the backbone of the economy.
“The idea is that all these nodes will connect and communicate with each other, maximizing the impact of the technologies and expertise they develop,” said Farid Dailami, an associate professor who runs the prototype hub in Bristol, which connects researchers and funding with companies that need robotics.
Europe already has two of the world’s largest robotics companies, ABB Ltd. of Switzerland and Germany’s Kuka AG. Yet it has no vast internet platforms on the scale of Google Inc. or China’s Tencent Holdings Ltd. to hoover up the data that underlie many current technological advances in AI.
Worse, those American and Chinese tech giants have deep pockets, allowing them not only to fund expensive research, but also to scoop up successful European startups. Kuka was bought by a Chinese company while Google acquired the U.K.’s budding AI star, DeepMind.
One problem is that despite efforts to build a digital single market, the EU’s 500 million-strong population is divided among 28 nations. Universities, funding and other networks that underpin research are disjointed. China and its companies, by contrast, can mine the data of 1.4 billion potential customers in one market. Facebook Inc. alone has more than 2 billion users worldwide.
“Fierce international competition requires coordinated action for the EU to be at the forefront of AI development,” Andrus Ansip, the European Commission’s vice president for the digital single market, said in a statement announcing the EU initiative.
That situation is only likely to get worse after the U.K. leaves the EU next year. Dailami said he had been told to continue business as usual for now, but it isn’t clear that EU funding will be able to add U.K. laboratories to its new network.
Commission officials point to a vibrant European research environment, but worry that when it comes to monetizing those ideas the continent is falling behind. One example is mobile phones. European companies took an early lead, only to get locked out of the smartphone industry as non-European operating systems -- Android and IOS -- became industry standards.
Of the more than 230 $1 billion-plus startups known as unicorns worldwide -- the Googles and Tencents of the future -- the EU has just 26, and half of those are in the U.K. China, meanwhile, has 65 unicorns and the U.S. 115.
The commission’s solution is to inject more money to spur 20 billion euros of extra research funds for AI across the bloc; more vocational training; cheaper rights for companies to reuse the big data that Europe’s highly developed public sector collects through health, transport and other services; and a new network of research and business outreach hubs, modeled on Dailami’s operation in Bristol.
The robotics facility is attached to the University of the West of England. Projects from the warehouse-style space include Tactips, a technology enabling robots to know what they are touching, and a robot Dailami’s team put together for a milk company. It can “see” and remove unwanted duckweed from cow pastures, boosting production.
Dailami says he recognizes the advantages of scale that the U.S. and China enjoy, and the challenge Europe faces. Bloomberg reported this week that Amazon.com Inc. is investing heavily in creating robots for the home.
But he also says Europe can make up for some of those deficiencies by maximizing its strengths, such as in the growing business of caring for people in an aging population.
“We probably have the biggest single health service going, plus lots of little companies that are very good at AI,” said Dailami, referring to the U.K.’s largest employer, the National Health Service. “Why can’t we give some of these access to health data to deal with some of these problems?”
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