The European Commission’s AI Innovation Package: What does it mean for startups?
On 24 January 2024, the European Commission unveiled its ‘AI Innovation Package’ to support European startups in the development of trustworthy AI. This initiative does not come out of nowhere and goes along with the European Union’s much-anticipated AI Act, the world’s first comprehensive law on artificial intelligence. But what exactly is this package about and more importantly, how will it benefit European startups?
The Commission’s package actually contains:
- A proposal to provide privileged access to supercomputers to AI startups
- A decision to formally create the AI Act’s AI Office
- A Communication outlining additional key activities, such as the GenAI4EU initiative
Considering that AI startups struggle to access investments, the Commission intends to create so-called ‘AI Factories’ by amending the EuroHPC Regulation. These ‘AI Factories’ would be open ecosystems formed around European supercomputers, bringing together resources and experts (researchers, startups, end-users) to develop generative AI models. The idea is to acquire AI-dedicated supercomputers (or upgrade existing ones) that will serve as a one-stop-shop for startups and innovators to develop their AI algorithms faster, for instance general-purpose AI (GPAI) models. The Commission specified that only ‘ethical’ AI startups – meaning those that would commit, for instance, to the AI Pact – will be granted access. This initiative is good news for the startup ecosystem. Supercomputers are highly advanced computing machines with exceptional processing power. Accessing them can not only significantly accelerate the training of large AI models, but it can also help AI startups achieve cost benefits (tens of millions of euros!) as compared to using commercial cloud platforms.
The AI Office
The Commission also adopted a decision to establish an AI Office that will be in charge of implementing the upcoming AI Act. This body will be integrated into the Commission’s Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology (DG CNECT). It will ensure the coordination of AI policy in the EU by developing methodologies for evaluating GPAI models’ capabilities, by monitoring the application of GPAI-related rules, and by supporting secondary legislation (e.g. sandboxes), amongst other things. In addition to these missions, it will also have to provide administrative support for the soon-to-be AI Advisory Forum (that comprises startups) and will create a forum for the ‘open-source community’ to develop best practices. Although the AI Office’s powers have been downsized compared to previously-envisaged versions, startups welcome the existence of a body dedicated to the coordinated and harmonised implementation of the AI Act.
GenAI4EU and other initiatives
Lastly, the Commission announced several initiatives aimed at supporting the startup ecosystem. Amongst those are the financial support via the EU’s Horizon Europe and Digital Europe programmes for generative AI, new investments in startups and scale-ups via the European Innovation Council and InvestEU, but also GenAI4EU. This last initiative’s goal is to foster the uptake of generative AI in the EU, in areas including robotics, health, biotech, manufacturing, mobility, climate, and virtual worlds.
Although the startup ecosystem can only welcome this AI Innovation Package and the Commission’s will to create a strategic investment framework in trustworthy AI, the timing of this plan is not meaningless. Amongst growing concerns that some EU countries may try to derail the very final stages of the AI Act’s negotiations, the Commission decided to anticipate the rolling out of its investment plan (originally planned for February) on the day national attachés discussed the Belgian Presidency’s latest version of the text. Considering how burdensome some requirements of the AI Act will be for startups, one can legitimately ask whether the announcement of the AI Innovation Package yesterday was a mere coincidence or whether it was meant to reassure the startup ecosystem.