AI can undoubtedly be a force for good in Eastern Europe, which has historically lagged behind the more affluent western countries of the continent, Cristian Gherasim writes.
Barely a day goes by without hearing about yet another mind-blowing artificial intelligence advance. The beauty of AI is that we all have access to it, more so than with any other technological discovery from past epochs.
Though still very much ahead, rich countries no longer hold the monopoly over this new invention and AI developments are happening all across the globe, owing more to a nation’s capacity to innovate than to its overall wealth.
Eastern Europe is no exception, and despite the region remaining Europe’s most impoverished, research and development in AI seem to have picked up speed in various sectors.
If harnessed wisely, AI could provide a boost towards growth for a region battling decades of communist-era shortages and post-communist economic inequality and deprivation.
World's first AI-powered government adviser is Romanian
Though still behind the western world, some central and eastern European countries made significant inroads in the AI sector.
For a few years now, Poland has been spearheading the fight against hate speech on the internet.
In 2019, its Samurai Labs developed AI-based software that detects hate speech, violence and fake news across online media platforms. The tool proved particularly useful in the years following the Brexit vote with the UK Police ending up hiring the company to investigate anti-Polish content online.
Aside from fake news and hate speech, this AI-powered tool has also been used to combat online paedophilia and other crimes.
In Romania, the Humans.ai start-up delivered the world’s first AI-based government adviser, ION, to help the Romanian prime minister understand the needs of constituents.
The project done in collaboration with AI researchers and professors from Romania aims to get a better sense of public opinion and how the public reacts to certain events, key issues and policies.
The company is branching out, partnering with research centres in the Middle East such as in the Emirati city of Ras Al-Khaimah (RAK), where it aims to reshape the tech landscape and create the first free zone and hub in the world dedicated exclusively to AI innovation and development.
Furthermore, Humans.ai will provide blockchain technology for the region’s AI ecosystem and startups.
Moldova's pest management and Ukraine's hi-tech warfare
Romania’s neighbour Moldova is also putting AI to good use, training it to detect pests and implement weed management for local crops.
The program — developed by the local company DRON Assistance and financed by the United Nations — is being tested on a 73-hectare field in the village of Onitcani.
In Ukraine, artificial intelligence is already at the forefront of the country’s defence strategy against Russian aggression.
AI helps identify Russian soldiers, track troop movement, establish new targets and intercept enemy communications, together with helping fend off Russian disinformation.
Drones and robots have already revolutionised not only the war in Ukraine but warfare in general. Ukraine is indeed a testing ground, a living lab for AI warfare.
This is also leading to the development of a strong tech civil sector where through partnerships, Ukrainian start-ups are growing.
What does Eastern Europe stand to benefit?
According to research by Goldman Sachs, AI could bring a near $7 trillion (€6.47tn) increase in annual global GDP over a ten-year period.
The potential for economic growth is limitless and eastern Europe can tap into that.
Some sectors are already witnessing AI-powered changes. Aside from its military use that we see at play in Ukraine, the technology can have a crucial role in shaping the region in years to come.
Agricultural drones flown by AI software sprinkle on average up to 40% less active substance allowing for more accurate spraying and safer crops.
These AI-powered drones present a far more ecological option to farmers who thus have no need for tractors and avoid burning fossil fuels that pollute the crops.
AI could also help the region in developing better waste management with smart recycle bins and facilities helping to sort and collect rubbish more efficiently.
Healthcare is another thorny problem, the region being notorious for its lack of doctors with Romania ranked as having the worst healthcare system in Europe.
Aside from poor financing and systemic corruption, hospitals in the region are facing a severe shortage of physicians.
AI can help supplement a dwindling number of medics so that more people can access medical supervision, with studies showing that the technology is capable of performing tasks as well or better than humans.
AI could turn out to be the 'great equaliser'
AI can undoubtedly be a force for good in Eastern Europe as much as anywhere else, but when so much is happening so fast, the conversation tends to become too broad and at times so abstract that those trying to make sense of it end up being exposed to the fringes, either loving or loathing the technology.
As with every new tool, however, cautious optimism should drive the approach as well as a better understanding of what that new tool can do for you, your home country and your region.
The European Union has also a role to play by both fostering the development of AI and making Europe a leading competitor alongside tech juggernauts like the US and China and also keeping an eye on potential risks through thorough checks and balances.
At the same time, the promise of a better life for those who were historically on the fringes means that investment into AI should be further supported, and not stifled.
If we do this carefully and with our joint progress in mind, we could see the harnessing of AI turn out to be the great equaliser the less well-off parts of Europe need — and something our entire continent would benefit from.
Cristian Gherasim is an analyst, consultant and journalist with over 15 years of experience focusing on Eastern and Central European affairs.
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