In October 2020, the Italian Ministry of Economic Development released a draft version of its National AI strategy for public consultation (Italy, 2020). The strategy takes stock of policy recommendations from a proposal for the Italian AI strategy published in July 2020. The final version of the Italian AI strategy is expected for the first half of 20211.
The draft AI strategy provides a long-term vision for a sustainable development of AI with the following actions to increase the development and competitiveness of AI in Italy:
- Improving AI education at all levels, and providing lifelong learning and reskilling opportunities to the labour force;
- Fostering AI research and innovation to enhance the entrepreneurial competitiveness;
- Establishing an ethical regulatory framework for a sustainable and trustworthy AI;
- Supporting (international) networks and partnerships;
- Developing a data infrastructure for AI applications;
- Improving public services through a wider adoption and use of AI systems.
The Italian strategy envisages a public investment of EUR 2.5 billion2.
The Italian Government envisages the following initiatives to strengthen AI education at all levels:
- Supporting the progress of teachers’ digital skills;
- Introducing applied AI courses in the Higher Technical Institutes (ITS);
- Fostering female participation in AI subjects;
- Setting up a challenge to promote AI courses among students in the last two years of upper secondary schools and in the first three years of university (i.e. 16-23 age group).
As for higher education, the Italian Government plans the following actions to integrate AI courses in Bachelors, Masters and doctoral programmes:
- Including AI credits in academic courses for Master and Bachelor degrees;
- Creating national training programmes in AI, and interacting with stakeholders in the labour market (companies, public services, tertiary education) to align education and required professional skills;
- Developing an investment strategy for doctoral studies, and training skilled professionals in cooperation with the industries where AI applications could most likely emerge.
In addition, lifelong learning will take the form of online courses in AI to upskill and reskill the workforce. The strategy highlights that e-learning platforms emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic to improve Italians’ literacy in AI disciplines. This includes an initiative promoted by the Italian Ministry for Innovation (December 2020) based on the free-of-charge course “Elements of AI” created by the University of Helsinki. Participants will also have the possibility to obtain credits for their professional curricula through personal training accounts. In addition, the Italian strategy plans the following initiatives to foster AI education in both business and public sectors:
- Allowing tax credits for the participation costs of SMEs’ management in AI executive courses;
- Consolidating the vouchers for advices on digital innovation from specialised managers;
- Promoting trainings on AI and related technologies within the public administration, and covering at least half of the civil servants in 3 years maximum.
Finally, as for the needs of new skills the strategy envisages an observatory for AI and related socio-economic impacts to monitor trends in the labour market and publish an annual report of policy recommendations.
From the lab to the market
The Italian AI research ecosystem counts on a wide range of national centres of excellence like the Artificial Intelligence and Intelligent Systems Laboratory (AIIS) of the Italian Interuniversity Consortium for Informatics (CINI), the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT), and the Institute for Calculation and Networks for High Services (ICAR) of the National Research Council (CNR). In April 2021 the first laboratory dedicated to Pervasive Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (PAI Lab) was inaugurated in Pisa. The PAI laboratory was born from the need to aggregate skills, infrastructures and resources to face the scientific challenges of an AI that is transforming into a pervasive technology.
To increase the competiveness of AI industry, the Italian Government will expand the public funding and will encourage public-private venture capitals. Furthermore, the government envisages advisory services with appointed innovation managers to accompany SMEs in the technological and digital transformation process. The Italian strategy also plans the following actions:
- Organising calls for new AI solutions, the first two calls are set up as pilot projects to test the methodology on 1) smart components (automation and robotics systems) and 2) the needs of the public administration;
- Increasing technology transfers to SMEs with vouchers to receive advisory services from incubators.
The Italian Government also put in place regulatory sandboxes to facilitate controlled experiments with innovative products, including AI. The initiative called Sperimentazione Italia grants the possibility to companies, universities, research bodies, university start-ups and spin-offs from any sector to test pilot projects in the field of digitalisation and technological innovation, derogating regulatory constraints.
Priority sectors for AI developments in Italy are: industry and manufacturing, food and farming, culture and tourism, health and well-being, environment, smart cities, and infrastructure and networks. In addition, the Italian strategy presents several policy initiatives to encourage the uptake of AI in the public administration. The Italian Government aims to enhance AI skills in the public sector (see Section 5.15.2), public-private partnerships (see Section 5.15.3), open data and common data spaces (see Section 5.15.4). In addition the Italian proposal envisages to:
- Increase the procurement of AI innovations to achieve the national objectives of sustainability;
- Introduce AI applications for administrative proceedings and public services.
In terms of networking, the strategy proposal encourages the above mentioned centres of excellence to set up an R&D network close to the industrial community. In total, 8 Competence Centres (set up by the Ministry of Economic Development) and 12 European Technology Clusters (set up by the Ministry of Education, Universities and Research) will be the basis of a national network of knowledge exchange and collaboration. These nodes appear in the Digital Europe Programme for the period 2021-2027 and are a backbone of the pan-European networks together with the establishment of Digital Innovation Hubs.
The Italian city of Turin will be the headquarter of the Italian Institute for Artificial Intelligence (I3A), this structure will facilitate research and technology transfers and it will be the Italian reference in the development of AI technologies (including 5G, Industry 4.0, Cybersecurity).
The Italian proposal favours pan-European initiatives like the Confederation of Artificial Intelligence Laboratories in Europe (CLAIRE) and the public-private partnerships for electronic components and systems (ECSEL).
In addition, Italy takes part in the Global Partnership on AI (GPAI), an international initiative to spur a responsible development and use of AI in full respect of human rights, inclusion, diversity, innovation and economic growth. The GPAI collaborates with international organisations to connect experts from industry, civil society, governments and academia. This initiative accounts for two Centres of Expertise in Montreal and in Paris, and its secretariat is hosted by the OECD in Paris.
The Italian strategy highlights that an ethical regulatory framework for AI has to ensure transparency, accountability and reliability in order to stimulate citizens’ trust and engagement in a thriving AI ecosystem. The 2020 Strategy for technological innovation and digitalisation by the Ministry for Technological Innovation and Digitalisation foresees the creation of an ‘Alliance for Sustainable Artificial Intelligence’ with the aim to provide guiding principles for the development of trustworthy AI solutions. The national AI strategy also emphasises the importance of campaigns to inform citizens on the characteristics, opportunities and risks of AI as much as on its potential misuse.
For safe AI developments, it is as important to develop an ethics by design approach as much as to ground it in a binding legislative framework at national level to protect citizens and businesses. In this respect, the Italian strategy encompasses the following initiatives on legislation and related issues:
- Adapt the consumer protection framework to AI consumers and the new market reality of AI technologies;
- Introducing a compulsory insurance to cover liabilities and damages from the use of AI technologies;
- Encouraging out-of-court dispute resolution mechanisms based on the rules of unfair commercial practices.
Lastly, to increase citizens’ engagement, there will be a national platform, like the European AI Alliance, for consultations on ethical and social issues about AI.
The Italian Government commits to define a data policy that promotes collection, exchange and re-use of data, while respecting privacy rights and ensuring interoperability based on standards. The Italian strategy foresees the following initiatives:
- Creating a data market platform to support SMEs’ data collection and exchanges;
- Encouraging data sharing agreements to promote the data economy;
- Fostering the provision and re-use of public data in public service;
- Providing financial support to create an Italian Data Space with private a public stakeholders.
Although not specifically mentioned in the national AI strategy, the Italian Government also supports the development of a digital and telecommunication infrastructure. The CINECA computing centre is a not-for-profit consortium made by the Italian Ministry of Education, the Italian Ministry of Universities and Research, 69 Italian universities and 21 Italian National Institutions. CINECA aims to provide information services to the Italian Ministry of Universities and Research, to the universities and the other consortium members, to the scientific community, and to the public education sector. This is done by guaranteeing high-performance infrastructure services for the Italian research system, and access to the European network of high-performance scientific computing centres. In addition, the Italian Government participates in the Joint Undertaking to develop a competitive European computing ecosystem (EuroHPC). In terms of connectivity, Italy is expanding its ultra-broadband optical fibre network and explores ways to extent its 5G network.
AI to address societal challenges
Climate and environment
In July 2020, the Italian Ministry of Economic Development released the proposal for the Italian strategy for AI.3 This final proposal includes a chapter on AI for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which includes the environment and energy targets to reach by 2030. The policy report highlights that, although Italy worsened along the indicators of sustainable development, it also holds leadership positions in the development of AI-related technologies that could grant the country a recovery along the dimensions of sustainability. To this end, the Italian economy should exploit and further develop the following competitive advantages:
- Key environmental areas: key environmental areas in which Italy is excelling relate to the appraisal of hydrogeological risks, the management of seismic hazard zones, and critical infrastructures related to archaeological sites;
- Competitive AI technologies the Italian economy can build on its competitiveness on soft robotics and on the development of cobots/companion robots, along with the opportunity to employ AI within industries;
- Green energy and renewables: the production and distribution of green energy together with the challenges of societal inclusion are key environmental priorities for the coming years.
To reap the benefits of these new technological shifts, the high-level working group that drafted the strategy proposal calls for improved legislative transparency and governance. More specifically, it invites the Italian Government to follow a policy coherence for sustainable development by means of three pillars: 1) better regulation; 2), demand-side innovation policies; 3) fiscal incentives and policies to stimulate AI investments for sustainable innovation and green energy. Specific recommendations also call for the inclusion of vulnerable citizens during the implementation of AI policies.
Along the initiating countries of France and Canada, Italy is among the countries that participates in the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence (GPAI). The various working groups of the GPAI are currently focusing on responsible use of AI, data governance, the future of work, and innovation and commercialisation. In addition, the experts involved also focus on the role of AI in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Italian Institute of Robotics and Intelligent Machines (I-RIM) – a national non-profit association created to promote the development and use of Interaction Technologies for the benefit of citizens and society – is also contributing to fight against the COVID-19. Among other, it maps national and international pilot projects recently developed to respond to the COVID-19 necessities in the healthcare and related sectors. Projects are classified based on their application field, geographical region, Technology Readiness Level (TRL), development status and category (research or commercial project).
Furthermore, given the unprecedented challenges to government, industries and society in the COVID-19 outbreak, many Italian companies and start-ups are producing innovative products or repurposing their business, production and R&D capabilities to support the fight against coronavirus. Among these innovative products many employs 3D printing, robotics, sensors.
Italian hospitals are also participating in a collaborative project on Imaging COVID-19 AI. The objective of this project is to enhance computed tomography (CT) in the diagnosis of COVID-19 by using AI. The project group will create a deep learning model for automated detection and classification of COVID-19 on CT scans, and for assessing disease severity in patients by quantification of lung involvement.
In addition, Italian businesses have participated in the pan-European #EUvsVirus hackathon, which aimed to collect and promote innovative ideas to fight against the coronavirus. Winning Italian projects proposing AI solutions include: 1) aiLearning, which is an AI-based all-in-one platform aimed to simplify and improve exam preparation, execution and evaluation, and 2) Jobiri, proposing an AI-based digital career advisor able to digitalise employment services.
Finally, Italy takes part in the EU-funded project EXSCALATE4COV that exploits the most powerful computing resources currently based in Europe to foster smart in-silico drug design while increasing the accuracy and predictability of Computer-Aided Drug Design. Specifically, the project involves three among the most powerful supercomputing centres in the EU: CINECA in Italy, the Barcelona Supercomputing Centre (BSC) in Spain and the Julich Supercomputing Centre (JSC) in Germany. The collaboration also includes pharmaceutical companies and major institutes of biology and bio-molecular dynamics from across Europe.
Monitoring and future update
The Italian Government will set up an inter-ministerial cabinet for digital transformation under the Presidency of the Council to implement the national strategy and to liaise with international organisations. The inception of a forum will foster the dialogue between policy makers and stakeholders from economy and society. Lastly, indicators will help to monitor the strategy implementation and they will feed in regular reports to the Parliament.
Italy (2020). Strategia Nazionale per l’Intelligenza Artificiale. Ministero dello Sviluppo Economico. https://www.mise.gov.it/images/stories/documenti/Strategia_Nazionale_AI_2020.pdf