A journey that started in early 2017 with a talented group of experts at the Agency for Digital Italy and a task force of 30 specialists that brought to life the first world white paper on the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the public sector published in march 2018 by the Italian government has this week come to its final harbour. A voyage, that sounds like an Odyssey, for the many fatigues it has faced over the years, with another task force of very prominent professionals hosted by the Ministry of Economic Development, and numerous final versions of the national strategy on AI, due to change of governments and priorities. But, as Constantin Kavafis in one of his most known poems says “As you set out for Ithaka hope your road is a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery“, the launch of the Strategic Programme on Artificial Intelligence 2022-2024 reveals the many quests and stops that Italy has been confronting over the last 4 years. These have indeed enriched the strategy, giving it maturity and clearer vision of what is indeed necessary to boost the uptake of a technology that represents today a pivotal element in the digital transformation of our societies and our economies.
The strategy is the result of a harmonious collaboration between the Ministry of Education, University and Research, the Ministry of Economic Development, and the Minister of Technological Innovation and Digital Transition, which collaboration is to be seen across the entire document and the areas of intervention and policy initiatives set forward.
The five guiding principles of the National Strategic Programme for Artificial Intelligence set the tone on how Italy perceives the creation of a national ecosystem devoted to AI. First and foremost, Italy’s AI is a European AI, inspired by the latest version of the EU Coordinated Plan on AI, the government strongly adheres to the joint effort for improving and adopting the harmonized set of rules for AI proposed by the European AI ACT, now under revision of the European Parliament. Italy aims at becoming a global innovation hub of a human-centered, trustworthy and sustainable AI. In the public sector Italy’s aspirations are set to govern with the assistance of AI and to govern AI, mitigating its potential risks, especially to safeguard human rights and ensure its ethical deployment.
The document recognizes the vast potential of AI yet not fully exploited in the Italian ecosystem and with some specific indications on how to absorb the necessary funds to boost the scale up the of three main areas of intervention: talent acquisition, advanced research, adoption and application, indicates 24 policy initiatives to retain technological competitiveness and mark a substantial development of the ecosystem. 11 priority sectors have been identified in which Italy could really make a swift change thanks to AI: Industry and Manufacturing, Education system, Agri-food, Culture and tourism, Health and well-being, Environment, infrastructure and networks, Banking, finance and insurance, Public administration, Smart cities, areas and communities, National security, and Information technologies.
To respond to these challenges, European and national sources of investment have been identified to support each policy. The strategy indeed relies a lot in the National Recovery and Resilience Plan (NRRP) drafted by Italy, is part of the Next Generation EU (NGEU) programme, supported by the European Recovery and Resilience Facility, a plan to mitigate the economic and social impact of the coronavirus pandemic and make European economies and societies more sustainable, resilient and better prepared for the challenges and opportunities of the green and digital transitions, of which Italy is the mayor beneficiary, with € 191.5 billion.
Within the initiatives dedicated to talents and skills, interventions are planned to increase the number of doctorates and attract the best researchers to Italy, both in the fields of fundamental and applied research. At the same time, the program includes policies to promote courses and careers in STEM subjects and to strengthen digital and AI skills. An important target to also elevate the scarce results on digital knowledge and human capital as seen in the latest edition of the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) recently published by the European Commission
The strategic program also includes the policies necessary to strengthen the structure of the Italian research ecosystem in AI, promoting collaborations between the academic and research world, industry, public bodies and society.
Among other things, the aim is to create new research chairs on AI, promote projects to encourage the return to Italy of professionals in the sector, to finance platforms for sharing data and software at a national level.
The measures in favor of companies, as conceived by the strategy, are aimed at supporting the transition to the 4.0 Industrial landscape, favoring the generation and growth of innovative AI companies and supporting them in the experimentation and certification of AI products. The interventions for the Public Administration (PA) are aimed at the creation of data infrastructures to safely exploit the potential of big data that generates the PA, at the simplification and personalization of the offer of public services and at the innovation of administrations, through the strengthening of the GovTech ecosystem in Italy. The latter measure, for example, provides for the introduction of periodic calls to identify and support start-ups that offer AI-based solutions that can solve critical problems in the public sector.
To ensure effective governance, to monitor the state of implementation of the strategy, and to coordinate all government initiatives on the subject, the permanent AI working group was also created within the Interministerial Committee for Digital Transition.
As recalled by the study “Europe’s Digital Decade and Autonomy” recently published by the European Parliament, this is a critical moment for the European Digital Policy. The European AI strategy aims to place people at the centre of the development of AI, what has been called “human-centric AI”. It is a three-pronged approach to support the EU’s technological and industrial capacity and AI uptake across the economy, prepare for socio-economic changes, and ensure an appropriate ethical and legal framework. The challenge is now on the 27 governments to make this strategy a reality for the European society and economy, and on the EU to adopt a regulatory framework that will forge a new vision on AI at world level alongside the newly adopted global standard on the ethics of artificial intelligence adopted by the member states of UNESCO. The Recommendation aims to realize the advantages AI brings to society and reduce the risks it entails. It ensures that digital transformations promote human rights and contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, addressing issues around transparency, accountability and privacy, with action-oriented policy chapters on data governance, education, culture, labour, healthcare and the economy.
As for the Odyssey, also this journey has been quite long but has made the country richer in the knowledge around AI and wiser around the challenges that the ecosystem able to nurture a new phase of technological growth is confronted by.
Arriving to Ithaka is indeed just part of a much longer adventure and is now time to see how the experiences started long time ago at the Agency for Digital Italy and today with three important ministers at the helm of the ship will lead Italy in the journey of AI.
The views expressed by the author are strictly personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Commission