Germany must close digital technology gap, Merkel ally says

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany must learn to “promote not impede” the use of artificial intelligence, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chief of staff said, as it seeks to close a digital technology gap between it and other leading economies.

FILE PHOTO: German Chancellor Angela Merkel shakes hands with a humanoid robot as Mexican First Lady Angelica Rivera de Pena and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto look on, at the booth of IBG at Hannover Messe, the trade fair in Hanover, Germany, April 23, 2018. REUTERS/Fabian Bimmer/File Photo

Merkel’s cabinet is holding a two-day retreat next week, at the end of which it wants to present an artificial intelligence (AI) strategy to help Europe’s biggest economy adjust to the digital era.

Germany has been at the forefront of industrial innovation for decades, but policymakers have been late to realize that its export model, based on traditional manufacturing, is vulnerable, and it is struggling to catch up.

Even standard bearers such as Volkswagen VOWG_p.DE and Daimler are vulnerable, with the likes of Uber posing a threat to mass individual car ownership.

The ride-hailing platform belongs to a growing class of asset-light companies that use artificial intelligence - essentially computers that can be trained to solve problems - to crunch data and run digital services.

“We want to push ourselves damn hard to make this topic a big success,” Chancellery chief Helge Braun said at a presentation late on Wednesday.

He said the government would focus on how to gather more data, support AI research, retain skilled workers and encourage them to found start-ups - and how to position digital regulation “that promotes and does not impede all this”.

“We’ve got a lot of homework to do there,” he said, noting that in many countries firms made innovations and the state regulated afterwards, whereas in Germany “there is generally a ban anyway.”


Extensive surveillance, first by the Nazis and then by Communist East Germany’s Stasi secret police, has led to Germans closely guarding their privacy and personal data. Merkel believes it is time to move forward.

A member of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Braun said Germany should set borders in the field of artificial intelligence to produce “technologies with high ethical standards”.

“For a party with ‘C’ in its name this must be clear -- we will include up-front a sentence with all issues on technology, digitalization, and AI: ‘technology must serve the people’,” he said.

Braun made no mention of upgrading Germany’s broadband network. The government has pledged to provide nationwide access to the high-speed internet that businesses need to work effectively in the digital era by 2025.

A 2017 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development study ranked Germany 29th out of 34 industrialized economies for fast internet connections. Japan and South Korea lead the pack.

Merkel has made fixing Germany’s digital deficiencies a priority for her fourth and almost certainly final term, saying “our future prosperity depends on it.”

Adel Al-Saleh, chief executive of Deutsche Telekom unit T-Systems, told an automotive congress on Thursday that his company would invest 20 billion euros ($22.84 billion) over four years on network upgrades and planned to provide 5G coverage for 90 percent of Germany’s population by 2025.

($1 = 0.8758 euros)

Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal; editing by John Stonestreet