Information and communication technologies (ICT) will continuously influence all of our lives in the coming years. Currently there is no indication that changes to our daily lives brought about by digitalisation – be it at the workplace, in our free time or in interactions with our surroundings – will slow down in future or turn out to be less disruptive.
In order to primarily limit this development to the positive effects, both the European Union and the Federal Ministry for Transport, Innovation and Technology (BMVIT) support diverse ICT projects.
To provide visibility to these projects and to offer all those involved in the digital transformation the possibility to exchange views, Imagine Digital – Connect Europe (ICT 2018), the biggest European ICT expert conference, was organised in Vienna from 4 to 6 December 2018. At the same time it was also the biggest event under the Austrian Presidency of the Council of the European Union and the undisputed highlight amongst the numerous research and innovation conferences that took place on a European level.
The focal point of this event was the digital transformation of society and industry. Everyone involved in this process had the opportunity to exchange their experiences and expectations of Europe in the digital age.
But what does it mean to digitalise Europe and to also connect those Europeans who have not yet come in contact with these new technologies? This was made clear in numerous panels, workshops and in a huge exhibition that covered more than 5 000 m².
More than 6 000 people from 120 countries attended the conference. They had not only the chance to listen to presentations and discussions but also to see for real and try out hundreds of innovations from the entire research and start‑up community. These are impressive figures that underpin the high interest in the digital future but also the necessity of a coordinated exchange.
Thanks to the Austrian ICT event IMAGINE18, held as part of ICT 2018, this exchange took place across generations: this year pupils also had the opportunity to discuss future technological developments with experts from all over Europe.
The European Commission as principal organiser and the BMVIT as host and co‑organiser staged a digitalisation exhibition focusing on human beings. This was an opportunity for both to showcase their digital plans to a large expert audience. The visitors, most of whom were from the research or industrial sector, could, in turn, explore new funding possibilities and inform themselves about where the technological journey may take Europe.
Horizon 2020 – a model for success
Once again, Austria has presented itself as a strong partner in European research framework programmes. Under the European programme for research and innovation Horizon 2020, Austria, with a submission success rate of 16.5 percent, occupies place three among European countries. For ICT projects, the success rate is even higher (18 percent) and the return flow quota (3.3 percent) is also very high. Austria is a European pioneer in microelectronics and a strong driver in research and development in Europe.
At ICT 2018 it became directly visible who the current recipients of the EU funds provided under the framework programme Horizon 2020 are. Since 2014, a total of 75 billion euros have been earmarked under the fund that covers the period until 2020. 3.5 percent of this amount will flow into projects for future and newly created technologies. Some of these projects also concern digital technology in the health sector, such as a smart asthma inhaler that monitors critical values and measures air quality or an app which helps cystic fibrosis patients to manage their diet.
The funded projects also include innovative ICT‑based solutions developed under the Active and Assisted Living Research and Development Programme (AAL) for active and assisted living. These solutions promote active and healthy aging at home, in the community or at the workplace and aim at improving the quality of life of older people.
One of the funded projects – a programme that helps journalists identify fake videos in social media – caused a stir.
Artificial intelligence strategies
One of the hottest topics for the future of the EU and the world is artificial intelligence. It is one of the key technologies of this century and will change our lives as few other factors will do. It is amazing and troubling at the same time to see what computers are all of a sudden capable of achieving: algorithms detect diseases faster than any doctor; software drives cars and, in the near future, possibly drones as well; and another software paints or composes in a confusingly similar way to the old masters.
The BMVIT is also actively involved in this development and has initiated two basic documents that should help shape the digital transformation in a meaningful way: 1. The strategy for the future of artificial intelligence in Austria and 2. The White Paper of the Austrian Council on Robotics, which the first document is based on.
It is the beginning of a strategy process. This process should involve and consult civil society and as many business and research stakeholders as possible. By doing so, it is hoped that Austria will maintain its leading role in the competition for AI technology and that societal and individual fundamental rights in times of AI can be safeguarded.
Since AI is highly relevant for the economy, plans have also been announced on a European level on how to handle this topic in the future. Recently, the European Commission published its action plan on artificial intelligence. Shortly before, the Joint Research Centre, an EU research institute, presented a comprehensive report that deals especially with ethical questions but also with the importance of AI for global competition.
Focus on training
With a view to boosting research into trustworthy AI technologies, the proposed Digital Europe programme envisages investment by the member states and the European Commission into Digital Innovation Hubs (DIHs). For the years 2019 and 2020, the Commission will provide more than 100 million euros for Digital Innovation Hubs in AI‑relevant areas, such as big data and smart manufacturing.
From 2020 the Digital Europe programme foresees a further expansion of DIHs in all member states, for which the Commission is making up to 900 million euros available.
In the area of skills and training, the plan foresees support for masters and PhDs in AI, as well as the adaptation of teaching and training programmes to better prepare society for AI technologies. Digital skills that promote the development and use of AI should also be included in curriculums at all educational and training levels.
The BMVIT and the Austrian Research Promotion Agency (FFG) had their own exhibition area – the Austrian Village – where funded projects from Austria could showcase their technological skills.
The exhibitors included:
“ICT 2018 has exceeded its reputation as THE European flagship event for digital technologies. Attracting 6 300 participants, it has not only confirmed its status as the largest European Commission event, but also set a new record for interaction at the conference with high‑quality exhibitors, 131 networking sessions and over 6 000 face‑to‑face meetings”, said Michael Wiesmüller, BMVIT head of department for key technologies for industrial innovation and at the Federal Ministry for Transport, Innovation and Technology and co‑organiser of ICT 2018.
He noted that Vienna, as a conference city, and the Austrian Presidency of the Council of the EU had lived up to their excellent reputation and set new standards in quality. “Vienna, that’s always magic!” were the parting words of one attendee.
The event was not just a success in terms of figures, but also a sign of the fruitful cooperation between the European Commission and the Austrian Presidency of the Council of the EU.
ICT 2018 also successfully concludes the digitalisation efforts of the trio presidency made up of Estonia, Bulgaria and Austria. During this period, Austria made AI a topic of its presidency while important initiatives were launched and strategies presented at both national and European level.
In other areas such as the Next Generation Internet initiative and the creation of platforms for legal and transparent data exchange, Austria was able to cement its role as a pioneer. The ICT 2018 programme thus directly followed on from the Data Intelligence Offensive (DIO), which was launched by the Austrian Federal Government in November 2018 and presented at the European Big Data Value Forum 2018 (EBDVF 2018). By holding two events on the topic of ICT during its presidency, Austria was able to provide considerable impetus for innovation and digitalisation in Europe.
During ICT 2018, numerous awards were presented for outstanding achievements in digitalisation in “research and development” as well as “digital skills”.