LIVE FROM GSMA MOBILE 360 SERIES – EUROPE, BRUSSELS: Europe must find a way to muscle in on artificial intelligence (AI) development by the US and China or face falling behind on a truly transformative technology, Orange CEO Stephane Richard (pictured) warned.

In a frank address, Richard said many governments around the world have become aware of the AI opportunities and have started to act. But he said it was time to be “realistic” that the leadership battle currently involved only the two superpowers.

“The big question is where is Europe, what is the roadmap, what is the political will and what is the capacity of Europe to really be part of this incredibly important race? Because we are shaping the world for the next decades.”

Richard noted the total investment in AI across Europe today is six-times lower than in the US and three-times less than in Asia. He also said the US, in particular, had much stronger foundations to emerge as a leader because it houses the strongest digital companies in the world such as Amazon and Google. The country also conducts the largest number of AI studies in the world and counts an extensive population of 800,000 experts working on AI, he said.

Richard also noted that an early AI consumer use case, smart speakers, was being dominated by Google and Amazon. Orange, however, is aiming to step up competition in partnership with German operator Deutsche Telekom on its own smart speaker, and “not leave the entire space to our US friends”. It will be known as Magenta in the Deutsche Telekom footprint and Djingo in Orange’s markets, available from December.

China pressure
“At the same time, China has set the national target to overtake the US by 2025 and dominate the global AI market by 2030,” he said. “In the official documents coming from China, it is also important to note that there is no mention of Europe, so it is clearly a battle for them between China and the US.”

Richard continued to state that both “incredibly powerful and large” markets enjoy favourable regulations which “offer little in terms of privacy and protection of customer data”.

Some “93 per cent of Chinese customers are willing to share location data,” 50 per cent more than a European citizen, he added.

To muscle in, or at least be part of the conversation, Richard said there are six points which must be addressed: regulation; data; 5G; skill sets; ethical issues; and fragmentation.

On the final point, he noted there are 27 regulators and antitrust authorities in Europe.

Conversely, the Chinese market is exploring downsizing from three operators to two, while the US could become a three-player market if a merger of T-Mobile US and Sprint goes ahead.

“We operators are desperately trying to remedy fragmentation and it is a weakness. Consolidation is still painful and a long way,” he said.