An open letter from top European scientists calls for a major artificial intelligence research institute to compete with the US and China, where many of the world’s top AI companies are based. Dubbed the European Lab for Learning and Intelligent Systems, or Ellis, the institute would have a presence in several countries, including the UK, according to a report from The Guardian.
The plan mirrors the one that led to the Cern particle physics lab, built in Switzerland following World War II for similar reasons, as many of Europe’s top scientists began taking jobs in the US.
Each local center of the lab would hire hundreds of scientists, including mathematicians and computer engineers, to help mitigate the brain drain of these experts to companies and universities in the rest of the world. The letter warns the Europe has fallen behind China and the US, when it comes to the rapidly evolving, potentially world-changing technology, saying that despite a handful of research centers focused in the EU, “virtually all of the top people in those places are continuously being pursued for recruitment by US companies.”
The letter was signed by researchers from France, the UK, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Israel.
A Guardian investigation last year found that British graduate students were abandoning academics for high-paying jobs at technology companies in the US, enough so that some universities were developing a generation gap in their researchers. The letter suggests that countries involved in the institute fund it as an intergovernmental organization, similar to the funding for the European Molecular Biology Lab.
According to Cambridge University information engineering professor Zoubin Ghahramani:
“Something needs to be done and it needs to be done now. It would provide Europe with centers of mass where we would have not 10 researchers but hundreds with expertise from different countries… This is of such importance to Europe it would be a terrible mistake not to do something major. If we don’t act in this area, both European universities and European industry will start to drift downwards.”
Ghahramani himself began working for Uber after they purchased an AI startup he had founded. But he has also pressed for the UK to participate in the new research project.
The institute is likely to begin with a partnership between France and Germany, with other nations joining the effort later. Every lab of the institute would be intended to be a $100m project with a $30 million annual budget.
In addition to the clear economic incentive for Europe to remain at the center of this research, experts like Ghahramani have also pointed out that if Europe becomes less involved in AI research, its scientists will also have less input in regulation of a technology that could reshape the world as we know it. According to Ghahramani:
“The regulatory environment for technology is often led by the people who control the technology.”