The Bulgarian Government published its National AI strategy (Bulgaria, 2020) in December 2020. The strategy has been based on a framework established by scientists of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (BAS) and finalised by experts of the Ministry of Transport, Information Technology and Communications (MTITC) after a public consultation with the state institutions and interested stakeholders. A version in English has been released on the portal of the Council of Ministers with the title Concept for the development of artificial intelligence in Bulgaria until 2030.
The Bulgarian AI strategy presents policy initiatives for the development of AI in Bulgaria for the period 2020-2030. It offers a comprehensive policy vision for the development and use of AI in Bulgaria and identifies main areas of impact such as infrastructure and data availability, research and innovation capacity, knowledge and skills, and building trust in society. The objectives are:
- Nurturing a solid knowledge and skills base in AI;
- Developing a strong research capacity for scientific excellence;
- Supporting innovations to foster the implementation of AI in practice;
- Building a reliable infrastructure for AI development;
- Ensuring sustainable conditions for financing AI developments;
- Raising awareness and building trust in society;
- Creating a regulatory framework for the development and use of reliable AI in accordance with international regulatory and ethical standards.
It takes stock of and further complements on prior national strategy reports on the Digital transformation of Bulgaria 2020-2030 and the National programme digital Bulgaria 2025 and roadmap.
As stated in Bulgaria’s national AI strategy, education reforms are needed across all education levels, as well as placing greater emphasis on vocational training and lifelong learning, to enable people to acquire and improve their digital and AI-related skills.
The following initiatives are undertaken by the Ministry of Education and Science (MON) to actively increase the knowledge and skills in AI:
- Applying AI tools in education to increase the quality, attractiveness and efficiency of the learning process;
- Improving students’ competencies in ethical issues related to the use of information technologies;
- Planning measures to increase students’ participation in STEM subjects;
- Expanding bachelor and masters programmes with AI-related courses, not only restricted to computer science but targeting multidisciplinary fields. This may also include courses with a specific focus on the legal, ethical and social aspects of AI;
- Creating adequate conditions for a sharp increase in the number of PhD students in AI fields;
- Enhancing teachers’ competencies in teaching and working with digital and AI technologies.
Policies related to vocational training, retraining and lifelong learning include among others:
- Offering short-term trainings and traineeships aimed at acquiring and upgrading digital skills in programming and data analytics;
- Designing and implementing life-long learning programmes to expand the stock of IT professionals with AI-related skills;
- Setting up specialised (re-)qualification schemes for professional profiles at risk of unemployment due to automation, in cooperation between business, trade unions, higher education institutions and public authorities;
- Creating more opportunities for the validation of non-formal learning to ensure more flexible labour mobility;
- Building an Education and AI platform with online AI courses, educational policies, and good practices for AI in education.
From the lab to the market
Policy initiatives to spur research excellence are presented in the recently updated National research strategy 2017-2030, the National roadmap for scientific infrastructure and the funding schemes of the National scientific programmes.
In addition, Bulgaria’s national AI strategy highlights the following activities to foster research capacities in the field of AI:
- Creating a Bulgarian AI Research Centre of Excellence to bring together scientific organisations and higher education institutions with proven excellence in AI research. Research will focus on the fields of neural networks, machine learning, natural language processing, semantic technologies, robotics;
- Stimulating research in priority areas and providing growing opportunities to experienced AI scientists;
- Expanding and enriching the activities of the Bulgarian Association of Artificial Intelligence (BAIA).
To foster innovation, the Ministry of Economy (MoE) recently launched Bulgaria's strategy for the fourth industrial revolution. It aims to support the integration of intelligent production systems and processes in the economy. This includes AI-based products and services that are enabled through a cutting-edge communication and data infrastructure.
Additional policies to develop innovation and testing capacity in AI in Bulgaria encompass:
- Establishing at least one Digital Innovation Hub specialised in AI;
- Creating Living Labs and virtual information centres for companies, in particular SMEs, to learn about success stories of AI products and services;
- Expanding financial mechanisms to support the deployment of AI solutions in industry and services, in particular for SMEs;
- Financing innovation laboratories at company level to test new AI technologies and business models in practice;
- Stimulating innovation capacity in public research organisations and higher education institutions.
Bulgaria’s national AI strategy presents several priority sectors. The choice of these sectors for the next 3 to 5 years was based on their readiness to use and develop AI. Among the thematic areas, it highlights smart agriculture, health care and the public administration.
In May 2019, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forestry (MZH) released its Strategy for the digitisation of agriculture and rural areas, which includes measures related to AI and blockchain for the agriculture sector. The strategy supports the introduction of computer technologies in the production of agricultural products, including the use of AI to carry out controls on production, to protect plants against harmful organisms and to reduce administrative burdens for farmers. To further strengthen smart agriculture in Bulgaria, following initiatives are foreseen:
- Setting up an intelligent AI-related system for information management to support more efficient, environmentally-friendly and ecological farming;
- Establishing a monitoring system based on AI technologies and satellite imagery to improve forecasting, extraction and production of agricultural resources.
The e-health and in general, the transformation of the digital health sector are among the main priorities of the National Digital Transformation Strategy for 2020-2030. It aims at ensuring the digital transformation in the health sector based on three technology pillars: cloud solutions, wireless networks (4G/5G) and enhanced deployment of high-speed fiber optics networks. The national AI strategy mentions the plan to set up a National Health Information System, including a national system for citizens’ electronic health records, and electronic referrals. The aim is to improve the interoperability of health systems and to facilitate the exchange of health data at national and international level. In this regard, towards the end of 2020, electronic health records and electronic prescriptions have been successfully launched in Bulgaria.
An updated strategy on the development of e-government in the Republic of Bulgaria 2019-2023 has been adopted in 2019, together with an updated roadmap of measures for its implementation. The update ensures the implementation of the European e-governance principles put in place at national level. Among others, it includes the development of information technology to improve the interaction between public administrations. The Bulgarian open data portal further improves efficiency by enabling data sharing and re-use in the public sector.
The national AI strategy of Bulgaria emphasises the need to strengthen research and innovation capacities and the uptake of AI technologies by means of active collaborations between research institutions and industry at national and international level. This is achieved through:
- Promoting cooperation spaces between researchers and AI professionals and encouraging the creation of collaborative networks in AI between universities, vocational schools and companies;
- Supporting the participation in European AI and digitalisation networks, such as CLAIRE and CLARIN & DARIAH initiatives;
- Participating in European testing and experimentation centres related to health, robotics and agriculture.
In addition, the Bulgarian AI strategy foresees policies to raise both citizens’ awareness on the benefits and risks of AI (e.g. the malicious use of AI for mass impact, manipulation and disinformation). Following policies are planned to improve the public dialogue and to build trust in AI:
- Ensuring visibility of the AI applications developed in AI Research Centre of Excellence and presenting the expected benefits for society;
- Exploiting social media channels and events to raise awareness on AI and to share successful examples of AI applications and companies;
- Organising AI competitions and hackathons for students to raise their knowledge and experience in working with AI systems.
The Bulgarian Government commits to establish a regulatory basis for the development and use of trustworthy AI in line with international regulatory and ethical standards. The principles of respect for fundamental rights, non-discrimination and the protection of personal data should be seen as an integral part of the regulatory framework that ensure the safety of AI technologies. To this purpose, the following policies are proposed:
- Establishing a national framework to assess the impact and risks associated with the development of AI technologies. The aim of the framework is to enable a comprehensive overview of the legal and ethical aspects of AI technologies;
- Creating a toolkit to stimulate the adoption of safety and legal responsibility principles among actors involved in the development, deployment and use of AI technologies. The toolbox will include a combination of procedures and flexible approaches that promote informed judgement in decision-making processes.
Bulgaria’s national AI strategy highlights the need to invest in infrastructure for delivering high performance computing, secure data collection, storage and processing, 5G connectivity and next-generation software to support the development and deployment of AI. This requires investment in the construction and maintenance of computing infrastructure, communications and service software, as well as the accumulation of big data. Bulgaria is already setting up a modern ICT computing infrastructure and is planning both the further development of the 5G network and the provision of data under the Digital Europe Programme 2021-2027. In particular, following policy initiatives are foreseen:
- Establishing platforms to ensure access to and sharing of company data, enabling real-time data transmission in priority sectors such as smart agriculture and e-health;
- Integrating scalable high performance computing infrastructure in the national AI Research Centre of Excellence;
- Setting up clusters of experts in priority areas (such as health and agriculture) to set up standardisation approaches and to ensure interoperability and compliance to FAIR principles. These measures should be integrated in the national Open data portal;
- Establishing guidelines for anonymisation and pseudonymisation of personal data for the purpose of sharing health data, with clear rules on transparency, governance and privacy protection.
The need to improve existing infrastructure by ensuring wide deployment and use of high capacity networks is also presented in the policy report on Digital transformation of Bulgaria for the period 2020-2030, adopted in July 2020. The strategy report states that improving connectivity will enable the development of innovative business models in many sectors such as research, industry, digital and remote health, security, logistics, autonomous and connected vehicles, digital governance and digital education, as well as the development of smart cities.
Finally, to achieve a safe and secure cyberspace for the development of society and industry, the Bulgarian Government released the Cyber security strategy. It provides a framework for the development of a national cyber security plan to tackle potential threats and attacks to autonomous and intelligent systems.
AI to address societal challenges
Climate and environment
In January 2020, the Bulgarian Government released its Vision, objectives and priorities for the national development programme: Bulgaria 2030. The policy report sets out strategic objectives to accelerate economic development and reducing inequalities. One of the development axes to achieve these strategic objectives relates to a green and sustainable Bulgaria. Along the priority of ensuring a more sustainable environment, digital connectivity is mentioned as a core component to support developments in this field.
In addition, the Bulgarian Strategic Centre for Artificial Intelligence (SCIA) aims to support and develop projects that use AI to tackle the most difficult societal and business problems. According to its mission statements, its objective is to solve humanity's biggest problems from terminal diseases to climate change, by using big data, machine learning, and robotics. The centre has the following partners and stakeholders: Partnership for Advanced Computing in Europe (PRACE), SophiaLab, and the National Centre for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA).
Since the COVID-19 outbreak, the use of AI has tremendously increased as an essential and effective tool to observe and predict the evolution of the pandemic. At the same time, it also helps in the recovery phase.
Against this background, Sofia Investment Agency, and Innovative Sofia, have recently met with a number of industry associations in participation with the Sofia Deputy Mayor for digitalisation, Mr. Vladimir Danailov. The objective of the online meeting was to discuss potential actions on how to rebuild the business ecosystem after the COVID-19 crisis. The proposed measures are outlined on the European Cluster Collaboration platform. Among others, Sofia-based companies dealing with big data, business intelligence, AI, telemedicine, cybersecurity, automation and robotics of business processes, clinical trials and more, should be engaged in a working group to develop a three- or five-year plan to implement working digital models for the healthcare sector.
Monitoring and future update
AI policy making is spread across various governmental institutions. Given the horizontal nature of the activities, responsibilities are shared between the Ministry of Transport, Information Technology and Communications (MTITC) and other administrations, including the Ministry of Education and Science, the Ministry of Economy, the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, the Ministry of Health, and the State Agency for e-Government, among others.
The coordination of Bulgaria’s national AI strategy implementation is under consideration. To effectively and continuously monitor the implementation of the AI strategy, an interdepartmental working group will set up a roadmap outlining the policy measures, responsible institutions, expected results and monitoring indicators.
Bulgaria (2020). Concept for the development of artificial intelligence in Bulgaria until 2030. Ministry of Transport, Information Technology and Communications. https://www.mtitc.government.bg/en/category/157/concept-development-artificial-intelligence-bulgaria-until-2030