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AI, Electricity And The Age Of Empowerment

Europe’s power sector has a crucial role to play in leading the responsible application of AI.

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Europe’s power sector has a crucial role to play in leading the responsible application of AI.

Opinions

AI, Electricity And The Age Of Empowerment

Europe’s power sector has a crucial role to play in leading the responsible application of AI.

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It will come as no surprise to hear that artificial intelligences are among the most exciting technologies coming to the fore in the 21st century. After all, there’s nothing new about dreams of technological utopias, populated by machines that anticipate and cater to our every need.

That empower us to do more of what we really value, better. And such visions now look increasingly like they could be within our grasp.

Progress has primarily been in the area of machine learning, spurred on by innovative tech giants and start-ups alike, particularly in the US and China. And as the Internet of Things continues to take hold, with internet-enabled devices collecting ever-more data, there will be more and more for our machines to learn – and gain in intelligence.

But this process needs careful guidance. And that’s where Europe can come into its own.

Europe’s critical role

The biggest danger we face as we build a world defined by AI is our understanding, or lack thereof, of what this all really means. For instance, what will the world look like in 2030? Barely more than 10 years away, it’s already impossible to tell.

Such is the pace of change that the mere question is like asking someone in 1920 to predict the social media platforms of today.

And as the likes of Silicon Valley persist with a culture of building and beta-testing their ideas, making the move to market quickly and iterating as they go, there is no reason to expect developments to slow down any time soon. Nor would we want them to.

But it is important that we also have great minds working to ensure that innovative AI technologies lead the world in 2030 to be better, not worse, than it is now.

This is a chance for Europe’s own AI visionaries to play a critical role in shaping our future.

Europe’s culture of innovation is a little slower than that of the US and China. Not because of a lack of talent or infrastructure, but because of an emphasis on perfecting a product before release. It’s a slightly different mindset but no less valuable. Especially in times like these.

We need European AI experts to consider not just what’s possible, but what’s actually responsible. As all Black Mirror fans know, not all ideas should be unleashed on humanity.

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After all, it is on this topic that Europe comes into its own. The continent is home to companies like DeepMind researching ways to apply AI to the benefit of humanity. And the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University is doing fantastic work diving into the social, political and economic implications of AI.

These are critical conversations, raising philosophical questions that have to be answered if AI is to bring about the utopia we all hope for.

The new information grid

Perhaps surprisingly, the most important players may prove to be the European utilities and power suppliers. We’ve become accustomed to seeing industries disrupted by new technology but the shift we can expect to see in our energy landscape will be unprecedented.

Utilities providers face disruption on multiple fronts. Not only are they expected to adapt to smaller-scale, distributed electricity generation by active energy “prosumers”, but they also face competition from technology giants moving into their space with products and services such as Google’s Nest.

It’s apparent that the age of utilities simply selling kilowatt-hours is coming to an end. To remain relevant power providers will become platforms, offering services to improve our lives, as well as helping to regulate supply.

For instance, maybe they can provide free washing machines in exchange for the right to collect usage data that then impacts where power flows across the grid throughout the day.

The application of AI, and machine learning in particular, will be critical to the delivery of such services. So will a change of mindset. Utilities are moving into the people business.

They’ll need to think beyond chasing efficiency gains alone; instead applying emotional intelligence in everything they do. After all, an optimally-efficient grid is no good if it doesn’t fit around how people want to live.

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It’s this consideration that matters the most to the successful application of AI in the future. It’s perfectly plausible that the power grid and information grid will merge to become one and the same – the AI-dependent infrastructural foundation upon which we build our lives.

It’s similarly plausible that while the US and China produce technologies first, the first truly considered, ethically-sound and beneficial implementations could come from the European power sector.

An age of empowerment

This is a huge responsibility. The sector’s attitudes and behaviour towards AI over the next few years may come to shape not only its own commercial prospects but also global approaches to AI and indeed the future of the world we all live in.

Thankfully, power professionals are taking it seriously. They’re already coming together at events like Electrify Europe to share ideas and lessons across the full length of the electricity value chain; working together to develop responsible solutions that will work to improve our lives.

It’s exactly the type of leadership we need if AI is truly to live up to its billing as the most exciting development of our lifetimes – and unlock a new age of empowerment.

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AI, Electricity And The Age Of Empowerment

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