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The European Union for more than a year has been making moves to ensure it isn’t left behind by the likes of the United States in the rapidly expanding global generative AI market. These moves include the expected adoption next month of the EU AI Act, a legal and regulatory framework whose details recently were leaked.

The bloc this week took another step, with the European Commission (EC) adopting a series of proposals designed to give a boost to European startups and smaller enterprises looking to gain traction in the AI space and expand the EU’s AI ecosystem.

A central point in the EU’s “AI innovation package” is making the region’s vast network of supercomputers available to startups and small and midsize enterprises (SMEs) through a multi-point program dubbed “AI Factories.”

The effort includes building and running AI-dedicated supercomputers to accelerate machine learning and the training of large general-purpose AI models, giving a broad range of public and private organizations – including startups and SMEs – access to the supercomputers, and “offering a one-stop shop for startups and innovators, supporting the AI startup and research ecosystem in algorithmic development, testing evaluation and validation of large-scale AI models, providing supercomputer-friendly programming facilities and other AI enabling services,” according to the EU.

EU lawmakers also want to enable organizations to develop a range of AI applications based on the general-purpose AI models.

AI Requires a Lot of Power

“You need computing power to develop AI. A lot of it,” Margrethe Vestager, executive vice president for a Europe Fit for the Digital Age, said in a statement. “We want to give SMEs and startups privileged access to the network of European supercomputers. We are committed to innovation of AI and innovation with AI and we will do our best to build a thriving AI ecosystem in Europe.”

In addition, EC will offer financial support through Horizon Europe (a research funding program that runs to 2027) and the Digital Europe programs (a new effort to deliver digital technology throughout the EU) that will provide about $4.35 billion in public and private investment, plans to grow blocs generative AI talent pool, and encouraging venture capital and equity firms to invest in AI startups and other organizations. The effort will include two new initiatives, the EIC accelerator program and InvestEU.

The EU also will make Common European Data Space available to AI companies and innovators to train and improve their AI models and is launching the GenAI4EU initiative to support novel use cases and new applications in Europe’s 14 industrial ecosystems – including robotics, health, biotech, manufacturing, mobility, climate and virtual worlds – and the public sector.

Finally, two consortiums will be created to develop a common European infrastructure to address a shortage of European languages data for training AI solutions while upholding Europe’s linguistic diversity and to use AI tools to develop local digital twins for smart communities.

The AI Factories program follows the EC’s launch in November 2023 of the Large AI Grand Challenge, awarding prizes to AI startups for financial support and access to supercomputers.

Expanding the Supercomputer Ecosystem

The EU for several years has been investing to build out its supercomputer capabilities to better compete with the likes of the United States, China and Japan, including in the area of exascale systems. The first of these massive supercomputers, codenamed “Jupiter,” is due to be installed this year in the Jülich Supercomputing Center in Germany. The second such system, which is expected to go online in 2025, will be housed in France.

Europe also has a number of very fast pre-exascale supercomputers in Portugal, Bulgaria, Luxembourg, Italy and Finland. Most recently, the EU last month launched MareNostrum 5 system at the Barcelona Supercomputer Center in Spain, which will target scientific work ranging from the development of digital twins of Earth and the human body to the search for new treatments for cancer and other diseases to the design of sustainable cities.

As with the other systems, the focus user groups of the region’s supercomputers being primarily scientists, researchers and academics. With the new AI Factories initiative, AI efforts will now get broader access to the compute power necessary to design, build and run models.

Overall, AI Factories will bring together “‘raw materials’ for AI: Computing power, data, algorithms and talent,” Thierry Breton, EU’s commissioner for internal market, said in a statement. “They will serve as a one-stop shop for Europe’s AI start-ups, enabling them to develop the most advanced AI models and industrial applications. We are making Europe the best place in the world for trustworthy AI.”

The EU AI Act

Another important step for the EU’s AI efforts will come February 2, when EU ambassadors are expected to approve the bloc’s AI Act, which has been in the works since 2021 and which got the political OK by EU lawmakers last month.

The AI Act is expected to serve as guidance to ensure the trustworthy use of the technology, touching on such issues as risk – from minimal and high risk to what’s unacceptable risk – and transparency. As with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – which addresses how personal data is handled in the EU – the rules in the AI Act and their associated penalties will cover not only organizations within the EU but also outside companies that do business in the region.

EC President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement last month the AI Act is the first-in-the-world comprehensive legal framework on AI and that it “transposes European values to a new era. By focusing regulation on identifiable risks, today’s agreement will foster responsible innovation in Europe. By guaranteeing the safety and fundamental rights of people and businesses, it will support the development, deployment, and take-up of trustworthy AI in the EU.”