Artificial intelligence and the future of work: which European way?

, by Gabrielle Heyvaert, Translated by Lorène Weber

Artificial intelligence and the future of work: which European way?

Beyond illusory prophecies on the “end of work”, it appears that the astounding development of artificial intelligence (AI) will disrupt our relation to work. This article comes back to the seminar “Artificial intelligence and the future of work” organised by the French think tank Confrontations Europe last month.

Artificial intelligence is an umbrella expression covering very different technological and industrial realities (especially in terms of maturity), whose effects on the world of work are necessarily differentiated. For Yann Le Cunn, Chief AI Scientist at Facebook, the rise of artificial intelligence is not a technological question, but rather a political, cultural or even civilization one. The United States and China have fully seized AI’s stakes, development and dissemination within industrial ecosystems, and are disputing the leadership in the area. Europeans, however, seems behind.

Artificial intelligence shakes up the functioning of social and economic organisations and our relation to work, as well as our capacity to give expression to our collective preference. High-skill jobs will not or will little be concerned by AI at first, because they are, by their nature, difficult to automate. However, low or medium-skilled worker risk to be marginalised and excluded if they do not benefit from adequate trainings. This risk of labour market polarisation is likely to be modulated by the collective choices that the Europeans will make (or not). [1]

European collective preferences

Europe has strong collective preferences regarding social organisation, in particular in terms of inclusion and solidarity, and despite the national systems’ diversity. Moreover, Europe asserts these preferences in areas impacting the digitalisation of economies and societies, for example concerning personal data protection or humans’ place in automated decision systems. But the normative approach adopted by the EU to embody these preferences is struggling to deliver results (as problems of GDPR enforcement by American companies prove it) and is not a panacea. Yet, transformation promises brought by artificial intelligence are so high that this approach (“the United States has the Big Four, Europe has the regulators”) will quickly be unfounded. Because Europeans are running the risk that the tool sizes and imposes forms of social organisation of labour and standards, especially regarding private life, that do not reflect their collective preferences.

A report of the French Senate released in 2013 feared that the European Union would become “a colony of the digital world”. Europeans certainly fall behind AI private investments, which were of about 2.4 to 3.2 billion euros in 2016, against 6.5 to 9,7 billion euros in Asia and 12.1 to 18.6 billion euros in North America. [2] Networking effects and economies of scale in the digital space favoured the rise in power of foreign giants capable of absorbing European start-ups rather than allowing them to become serious competitors. In addition to weak and badly coordinated investments, there is a shortage both in staff trained to the use of AI and in specialised cursus in higher education. The European digital strategy especially consists of attributing specific scholarships for specialised degrees in AI. We can however wonder about the EU’s current attractivity to retain ‘talents’ in front of the other clusters’ attractivity (American or Chinese), especially in terms of salaries and professional or intellectual perspectives.

This article was originally published in French on 17 April 2019 in La Revue, the quarterly journal of the think thank Confrontations Europe.

Confrontations Europe’s proposals for AI and the future of work

1/ To define a European strategy towards an overall rise in competences through the member states’ basic and continuous training systems, aiming at enabling the anticipation and support of the digitalisation of economy and society induced by artificial intelligence. Trainings will be efficient only if we enable the economic and social actors to identify their skill needs, and will have to go along with a European support in terms of investments and needs prospective.

2/ To transform the European clusters policy in order to provide the EU with dynamic and powerful ecosystems, consisting of competent economic and scientific actors in the field of AI. The goal is to make Europe attractive in order to keep the ‘talents’ on the European continent.

3/ To assure a massive public support to potential disruptive innovations developed by European companies and in particular promising start-ups on the model of the American Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).


[1See the article of Franca Salis-Madinier on digital transition published by Confrontations Europe.

[2See “10 Imperatives for Europe in the Age of AI and Automation”, McKinsey Global Institute, Report, October 2017.

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