Generative AI could be Europe's shot at gaining a competitive edge against the U.S., Accenture's AI chief for Europe says

In tech circles, sophisticated AI tools have been in the works for many years. But for businesses and the general public, AI really caught on last November with the release of OpenAI’s chatbot ChatGPT, which made AI more accessible than it previously was. And the potential of AI has pit companies—and even entire regions—against one another. 

Take the Europe and the U.S.

Europe is home to some of the industry’s early movers, including in research, while a number of big companies that are key players in the space, from Google to Microsoft, are based in America. This has stirred debates about whether Europe may be losing out against the U.S. in the quest to build powerful AI tools.

But that needn’t be the case—if anything, generative AI could offer a path for Europe to regain its edge, according to Matt Prebble, Europe’s data and AI lead at consulting behemoth Accenture. 

“We are facing things that we need to catch up on—if you look across Europe, we have more technical debt than America and we have less technology-skilled people at a board level, for example,” Prebble told Fortune in an interview last week. “Therefore, this [Generative AI] does represent an opportunity to move fast and move quickly and to address some of those areas”

One key area that AI can help with, Prebble highlighted, was in improving productivity across Europe. In the U.K., productivity sank below the average in G7 countries earlier this year. In the broader European region, productivity fell during the COVID-19 pandemic and although those figures have since picked up, according to EU data, Europe generally trails behind the U.S. in tech innovations, potentially threatening its long-term competitiveness.  

“Europe faces a number of challenges. Overall, it faces a challenge around productivity—how do we drive further growth,” Prebble said, adding that demographic and skill-based factors have contributed to stymieing the region’s growth.

“[With] AI and technology more broadly, there is an amazing opportunity to drive a different level of productivity and to be able to do more with less.”

European CEOs prioritizing AI investments

The time looks ripe for European companies to forge their path forward using AI, and many of them are already capitalizing on it, according to a survey published by Dublin-based Accenture. The poll of about 2,300 C-suite executives across different parts of the world revealed that in Europe, about 91% of the companies surveyed allocated a sizable portion of their tech budget towards generative AI, while the same figure was about 87% in North America. 

“With 40% of all working hours set to be impacted by large language models like Chat GPT, it’s clear the value this technology has for businesses, their people and customers,” Accenture Europe CEO Jean-Marc Ollagnier said in a statement following the survey results. 

“European companies are picking up the pace in the Generative AI race, with ‘Gen AI’ innovation in Europe experiencing its fastest growth rate yet.”

To Prebble, the main takeaway is that European companies are prioritizing Generative AI more than even North America. 

“There’s London, Paris, Milan—all across Europe, there’s significant talent and experience and this does represent an opportunity for European companies to get ahead.”

The region is still seeing a talent scarcity, according to the survey, underscoring the need for more training in AI-specific skills to prepare for the future. For its part, Accenture plans to invest $3 billion in AI efforts over the next three years and looks to double its AI talent to 80,000 people.  

One area in which Europe already has a leg up, Prebble notes, is in AI regulations. The EU’s AI Act, which is in its final stretch and could go on to serve as a blueprint for other parts of the world on how this powerful tech can be regulated. The U.S., in the meantime, is still seeking inputs from AI front-runners and key personalities on how to draft the right regulations.

“Europe is ahead in terms of regulation and legislation and businesses are monitoring this very carefully,” Prebble said, adding that the prospect of having clear rules in place was “encouraging” for businesses and how they can operate and adapt to the new AI world.  

Despite the headway that Europe’s made on crafting AI rules, executives are pushing back due to fears that the new laws could curb competitiveness. A group of 150 company leaders signed an open letter addressed to EU lawmakers urging them to reconsider proposed rules that could make the development of generative AI more challenging. 

“Such regulation could lead to highly innovative companies moving their activities abroad ” and investors withdrawing their money from AI development in Europe, the letter said, reports the Associated Press. “The result would be a critical productivity gap between the two sides of the Atlantic.”

Concerns over the future of AI will likely continue given the impact of this tech, but Prebble says he’s optimistic about what it would do to future jobs, even if it upends the status quo. 

“There is no doubt in my mind that there’ll be completely new jobs and roles that we can’t even imagine yet,” Prebble said. “I do see change. The question is, how do we manage and make that transition both in companies and in society generally.”

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