Education and research minister unveils AI Action Plan

Bettina Stark-Watzinger, Germany’s education and research minister, has unveiled an AI Action Plan to boost developments in artificial intelligence at a government closed-door meeting convened to get the country’s ailing economy back on its feet.

At the meeting in Schloss Meseberg, near Berlin, the ruling Social Democrat (SDP), Green and Free Democrat (FDP) cabinet looked at various options to speed up economic recovery. The AI Action Plan, outlined by Stark-Watzinger as head of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), was also discussed.

Stark-Watzinger believes that AI holds enormous potential for the German economy. The action plan is an update of BMBF’s contribution to the federal government’s overall AI Strategy, since revised, which was released in 2018 and committed Germany to investing €5 billion (US$5.4 billion) for its implementation by 2025.

“With our AI Action Plan, we want to give the AI ecosystem new impulses so that it can take rapid new developments into account,” Stark-Watzinger explained ahead of the meeting. “Our aim is to enable Germany and Europe to assume a leading position in a world ‘powered by AI’.

“To achieve this, we will be investing a total of more than €1.6 billion in this term of office,” she said.

Boosting the research base

Stark-Watzinger referred to 11 fields requiring urgent action, including boosting the research base and formulating a research agenda for new perspectives.

AI infrastructure, and in particular computer infrastructure, had to be enhanced, and efforts had to be made to boost skills in the AI field. More research was needed on AI-based technologies in the education system. Further aspects included boosting the translation of AI research and development results into prospects for the economy and benefiting from AI in the health sector.

The BMBF is already involved in 50 ongoing measures focusing on research, skills and infrastructure development, and transferring AI research results to applications in industry and other areas in society.

The AI Action Plan says: “We are creating a strong AI skills base, with the six AI competence centres and 150 additional AI professorships as an excellent nucleus.”

New initiatives that the ministry seeks to support include setting up junior scientist groups on topical research issues in AI development, which are headed by excellent natural scientists, and a funding programme ‘Zukunft eHealth’ to attract STEM researchers to research at the interface between information and communication technologies and medicine and life sciences.

Supercomputing is to be stepped up to support science and research, and to create access for the wider AI community of scientists, SMEs and start-ups. Further areas include establishing a research network in the field of “neurobiologically inspired AI” and initiatives promoting more networking at European level.

Opposition criticism

Stark-Watzinger’s AI Action Plan was strongly criticised by Bavaria’s Minister of Digital Affairs Judith Gerlach ahead of the cabinet’s closed meeting. Gerlach, a member of the opposition Christian Social Union, referred to it as “too little, too weak and too unspecific”, maintaining that that with such a plan, Germany would lag even further behind in global AI competition, and demanding that Stark-Watzinger “significantly beef up” her concept.

Gerlach was particularly critical of what she claimed was a lack of concrete measures to get AI applications into industry. Worldwide, Germany only came up ninth in terms of AI start-ups, one major shortcoming being the lack of computing capacity especially focused on AI requirements.

According to Gerlach, all this shows that the federal government is not really taking the topic of digitalisation seriously. “We need a high-tech agenda for Germany comparable to what we already have in Bavaria,” she says, pointing to a Bavarian initiative that is funnelling a total of €5.5 billion into AI development.

A further €500 million is being provided for 200 concrete projects, including the ‘KI Transfer Plus’ initiative. Launched in 2021, KI Transfer Plus has been run in cooperation with the Regensburg University of Applied Sciences (OTH Regensburg) and the Regensburg Center for Artificial Intelligence to look at how SMEs in Bavaria’s Upper Palatinate can be supported in introducing AI – künstliche intelligenz in German – in their operations.

Gerlach also maintains that so far, the federal government’s digital strategy has fared poorly. According to Germany’s digital association Bitkom, a mere 11% of the measures announced in the strategy have been implemented. And Bitkom states that just 15% of all companies in Germany are applying AI.

The ministry’s funding target for AI is dwarfed by the United States’ effort in AI research, with the US spending at US$3.3 billion in 2022. China is another big player in this field.

Fears are growing among state government politicians in Germany that the country could be facing creeping deindustrialisation, with more and more firms seeking their fortune abroad. High energy costs are a major investment deterrent for many companies.

According to a recent poll, a mere 19% of the population are satisfied with the coalition government’s performance, and the state of the economy has by far overtaken the climate crisis as a key topic.

At the Meseberg meeting, the SPD/Green/FDP Cabinet opted for more use of AI in public administration but failed to reach agreement on cheaper electricity for industry – one of the key challenges the German economy is facing.