The Spanish Government released its National AI strategy in December 2020 (Spain, 2020a) with the objective to develop a policy framework defining the various actions that the governmental administrations will undertake to facilitate the development and deployment of AI in the economy and society. This strategy adopts a multidisciplinary approach to address economic, social, environmental, public management and governance challenges, and it includes perspectives for a wide range of sectors and disciplines. It seeks to boost the growth of AI in the Spanish economy in the coming years with concrete AI-directed policies at the national level, while ensuring a smooth alignment with EU policy.
In defining the concrete action plans in accordance to the national AI strategy, the Spanish Government takes stock of the priorities and policy recommendations of the RDI strategy in artificial intelligence (Spain, 2019), the Spanish digital agenda 2025 (Spain, 2020b) and the Recovery, transformation and resilience plan (Spain, 2020c). The RDI strategy, published in March 2019, mainly focuses on the creation of a framework for a competitive Research, Development and Innovation (R&D&I) ecosystem in AI, and it provides a solid foundation for the RDI part of the national AI strategy. The Spanish Digital Agenda 2025, presented in July 2020, outlines the strategic approach for digital transformations in Spain, focusing on 1) the deployment of networks and services for digital connectivity; 2) the digitisation of the economy; 3) the improvement of e-governance, and 4) training in digital skills. Lastly, the Recovery, Transformation and Resilience Plan, released in October 2020, emphasises the importance of AI and presents policy initiatives to boost innovations in this field.
In particular, the national AI strategy highlights the following objectives:
- Promoting the development of human capital in AI through the development of a large base of skilled employment, the provision of training and education opportunities, the stimulation of Spanish talent and the attraction of global talent towards Spain;
- Developing solid scientific excellence in the field of AI to promote Spain as a leading country in AI;
- Placing Spain as a leader in the development of tools, technologies and applications for the projection and use of the Spanish language in AI;
- Boosting the deployment and use of AI technologies in both the public and private sector, including also cross-cutting sector activities and grand challenges;
- Guaranteeing an ethical framework that outlines individual and collective rights and builds an environment of trust in AI;
- Ensuring inclusiveness in the AI-driven economy, by reducing gender gaps and digital divides while supporting ecological transition and territorial cohesion.
In terms of financing, the Spanish Government foresees a public investment of EUR 600 million for the development and the implementation of the national AI strategy over the period 2021-2023.
As the Spanish strategy emphasises, human capital is an essential cornerstone and driver for the successful deployment and development of AI in Spain. To this purpose, one of the main priorities is to provide the necessary technical skills to both the current and upcoming workforces. Within both the private sector and the public administration, current workforces benefit from modern work-related trainings and life-long learning initiatives. To guarantee the skills of upcoming workforces, the Spanish Government foresees a wide range of education and training policies to stimulate and prepare next generations towards mastering digital skills and capabilities to understand and develop AI technologies and applications. Overall, the national strategy presents policy actions about education and digital skills for the entire population throughout their lives. The foundations of the various policies is the National digital competence plan, released in January 2021.
In terms of policies targeting the primary and secondary education, the national AI strategy foresees the following actions:
- Introducing the foundations to understand computational thinking, critical and creative thinking;
- Strengthening the orientation towards ICT technologies and AI of early education cycles and training of teachers;
- Promoting and adapting education in science, technology, engineering, maths and humanities (STEM), also within the tertiary education.
In line with these objectives, the Spanish Informatics Scientific Society (SCIE) and the Spanish Royal Society of Mathematics (RSME) have drawn up a joint report entitled Towards a new education in mathematics and informatics in secondary education. In the same vein, the Ministry of Education has published a study on Robotics and computational thinking in the education system in Spain. As an outcome of this study, the School on Computation Thinking and Artificial Intelligence is ongoing in cooperation with the Autonomous Communities.
At higher education levels, such as tertiary education, the following initiatives aim to strengthen the technological content towards AI:
- Expanding postgraduate studies, Master’s and doctoral programmes that offer AI trainings;
- Promoting an inter-multidisciplinary approach in which all educational disciplines.
The Spanish AI strategy also announces an action plan to combat gender discrimination, and to promote gender equality in both scientific education fields and AI-related jobs. Besides the gender gap, social cohesion is a general target to address also the inequalities due to disability and social exclusion.
These policies include also specific trainings for professionals, particularly lifelong learning, vocational training and reskilling opportunities. The promotion of continuous training refers to all job occupations throughout the entire professional life. It aims to keep competencies in line with future labour market demands. In particular, the national AI strategy foresees:
- Actions to upgrade professional skills and competencies are presented in the Strategic plan for vocational training of the education system 2019-2022. This plan provides actions to modernise the offer of vocational training to match actual and upcoming skill demands, notably in AI;
- Novel AI training opportunities for the current workforce in both the private sector and public administration.
From the lab to the market
The development of AI goes along with both a solid scientific research in AI and the subsequent efforts to transform science into marketable products and services. To coordinate the governance of scientific research activities in Spain, the Spanish Government has developed the Spanish System of Science, Technology and Innovation (SECTI). This system integrates and coordinates general State policies with the policies of Autonomous Regions on research, development and innovation (R&D&I). In collaboration with various ministries, it focuses on the creation, the implementation, the monitoring and the evaluation of R&D&I policies, including those promoting AI developments.
The following policy initiatives aim to foster scientific research in AI:
- Policy recommendations presented in the RDI strategy in artificial intelligence: with respect to scientific research this report highlights the following priorities:
- Fostering the development of AI technologies in key sectors of the Spanish economy;
- Facilitating AI research across all sectors, with special attention to cross-cutting activities;
- Encouraging the adoption of AI applications in all sectors, while allowing for different speed rates of proliferation;
- Creation of a Spanish network of excellence in AI to maintain research and training programmes in cutting-edge knowledge areas on AI;
- Strengthening pre-doctoral and post-doctoral research contracts and creating attractive programmes for senior researchers in AI;
- Supporting a flexible scientific trajectory of AI research staff to ensure scientific diversity and permeability across the public and private sectors while favouring knowledge transfers;
- Promoting the creation of new national technology development centres in multidisciplinary fields;
- Creating a programme of AI R&D projects that will focus in National Missions, addressing great social challenges in Spain.
The creation of a prosperous innovation environment further encourages the development of AI technologies. To this aim, the Spanish national AI strategy foresees the following policy instruments to support the digital transformation of businesses and public administration:
- Support programmes for companies providing AI solutions. These programmes aim to encourage the uptake of new technologies in companies’ production processes, and to foster data intensive use for the development of emerging technologies;
- Programmes to boost innovation on AI as part of the Recovery, transformation and resilience plan, in line with the frameworks of the Spanish Entrepreneurship Strategy and the Industrial Policy Strategy 2030;
- Map of AI capabilities in Spain: this initiative highlights the ongoing technological and scientific activities in AI in technological centres, academic institutions and public research organisations;
- Test areas and innovation sandboxes to facilitate experimentation in real-life conditions, in particular the Sandbox Financial Act targeting technological innovations in the financial sector.
With respect to the private sector, the national AI strategy calls for the integration of AI in the business value chain, in particular for SMEs. AI-related technologies and robotics integrate more and more in sectors, like the fashion industry, tourism and construction, in which Spain has a comparative advantage. The Spanish Government also recommends the adoption of AI in essential industries such as telecommunications, energy, mobility, health care and financial services. A wide range of programmes and initiatives with financial support are in place to foster the adoption and development of AI in the private sector. These initiatives span from grants, credits, venture capital to other risk-taking financial aids that encourage technological innovation. In particular, the following policy initiatives are ongoing or planned:
- Launching a public-private venture capital fund to boost digital entrepreneurship and the creation of highly innovative technology-based businesses, in the field of AI and digital enabling technologies;
- Strengthening existing financial support programmes such as:
- The NEOTEC programme provides venture capital, seed capital or direct grant support to technology businesses;
- The financing lines highlighted in the ENISA programme, directed to (young) entrepreneurs, and growth support;
- The state-owned bank ICO that promotes the creation of private management risk capital funds.
Witnessing the potential benefits of AI in the public sector and citizens as a whole, the national AI strategy also foresees a wide range of policies to foster the adoption and use of AI in the public administration. AI can help to improve decision-making with reliable and high-quality data, and it can increase the efficiency of service processes. The following actions will help to achieve these goals:
- Embedding AI in public administration to improve efficiency towards citizens, industry, and society at large;
- Increasing AI skills in public administration in order to encourage the use of AI applications;
- Launching an innovation laboratory to study the uptake and use of AI in public administration (GovTech Lab).
The new plan for the digitalisation of the public sector in 2021-2025 further stimulates the use of AI in the public administration by presenting policy initiatives to foster digitalisation and automation in the public sector to finally improve the quality of public policies and service to citizens.
An efficient knowledge sharing across stakeholders is crucial for the development of AI. Given the advantages of networks and collaborations in the development and uptake of AI, the Spanish Government highlights the following policy initiatives:
- Developing platforms that foster collaborative research on AI and knowledge transfers, while promoting and exploiting synergies between universities and businesses by means of cooperation programmes like the Co-incident Programme;
- Strengthening the Digital Innovation Hubs (DIHs) network;
- Supporting the Spanish participation in European RDI programmes.
In addition, Spain 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 partners and organisations to bring together experts from industry, civil society, governments and the academic world. This initiative is stirred by a secretariat, hosted by the OECD in Paris, and it accounts for two Centres of Expertise in Montreal and in Paris.
The Spanish Government is committed to increase the international attractiveness of the country in the field of AI. To this aim, the national AI strategy proposes the following initiatives to attract international talents in AI (i.e. individuals and businesses):
- Creating the Spanish Talent Hub, a programme in collaboration with ICEX Spain Trade and Investment to attract both academic and professional talents with a specific focus on attracting foreign investment, social impact investments, and promoting women entrepreneurship;
- Launching a programme for the international accreditation/equalisation of educational certificates to facilitate the attraction of international talents.
The proliferation of AI across the economy and society needs a well-developed ethical and regulatory framework that protects individual and collective rights, and that safeguards inclusion and social welfare.
With regards to the legislative framework, the national AI strategy stipulates that the development of AI has to comply with the constitutional values and principles of accountability, equality, individual freedom, and privacy. To achieve this, the Spanish Government will work on:
- A new legislative framework for AI applications and technologies to include, among others, laws that guarantee data integrity and security.
- A charter of Digital Rights (released for publication consultation) to guarantee individual and collective rights of citizens.
These initiatives take stock of prior work like the 2018 book on Digital Society and Rights by the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Tourism and financed by Red.es. This book already presents the challenges of regulating AI, and it reflects on its advantages and risks concerning rights.
Besides a solid legislative framework, it is also crucial to support AI development that is also ethically sound and that conceives AI-systems that are human-centred, trustworthy, fair, transparent and sustainable. In order to create an ethical framework, the Spanish Government envisages the following action lines:
- Launch of a monitoring model for ethics in AI developed by the AI Advisory Board, in collaboration with the Digital Transformation Advisory Board;
- Developing a trustworthy AI certification (i.e. quality label) for AI practitioners that develop ethically sound AI;
- Creating forums for national and international dialogue to discuss the impact of AI on human rights and public freedoms;
- Strengthening the National Observatory on Telecommunications and Information Society (ONTSI) from the public corporate entity Red.es to promote digital development in Spain. With regards to ethics, the Observatory published a policy report on The network society: digital transformation in Spain, annual report 2018. Among others it highlights the importance of the development of AI in the improvement of the welfare of citizens and the economy, alerting about its risks and ethical dilemmas.
Since the collection of data is an essential driver of digital transformation and of AI-related applications, the Spanish national strategy incorporates dedicated policies to develop data platforms. While the digital economy increasingly relies on large volumes of data, it also requires investments in high-performance telecom and IT infrastructure. Spanish policies related to data platforms and technological infrastructure are targeting three key areas: 1) the use and sharing of data across economic players and public administrations, 2) AI innovation through increased cybersecurity and cutting-edge infrastructure, and 3) AI technologies in the field of natural language processing.
The following policies will ensure the availability of high-quality data to foster the development of AI-based technologies:
- Creating a central data governance body (Data Office) at the national level and appointing a Chief Data Officer who will actively participate in initiatives to create secure data repositories in the EU and in coordinating AI applications in public administrations;
- Creating a decentralised and accessible data repositories to provide added-value services based on data infrastructures and innovative AI applications;
- The creation of an interdisciplinary Working Group on Open Data in the public sector. Furthermore, also the launch of the Data for the Common Good programme encourages the use and governance of open data;
- Promoting the access to public data, through initiatives as Red.es that stimulates openness and re-use of public administration data, and the open data portal APORTA;
- The creation of new value-added services based on data in line with the European data strategy that promotes data sharing among businesses, public administrations, governmental institutions and citizens;
- Fostering the infrastructure for AI in natural language processing, in particular for Spanish. To this purpose, the Royal Spanish Academy (RAE) recently joined other main operators of digital platforms in the project on the Spanish Language and AI (LEIA) to promote and enable the use of the Spanish language in the digital world and in AI systems. These policy efforts advance the action lines of the National plan for advancement in natural language processing.
To support infrastructure, the national AI strategy foresees policies in a wide range of areas, such as high-performance computing and cybersecurity:
- Supporting the pan-European EuroHPC initiative with high-performance computing facilities;
- Further expanding the National Centre of supercomputing in Barcelona (BSC);
- Launching an experimental computing laboratory in quantum computing to enhance new computational modes and explore their potential applications;
- Enhancing cybersecurity through a better coordination between involved economic partners and the Spanish National Cybersecurity Institute (INCIBE) in charge of promoting companies’ cybersecurity.
Concerning (cyber-)security, the Ministry of Defence also published a Security and defence document nº 79 about applied AI to defence to present challenges and opportunities of AI for defence, evaluating suitable uses of robotics, computer vision and natural language processing.
Additionally, other plans, such as the 5G action plan and the Connectivity Plan, will foster high-speed connectivity deployment and uptake, which will underpin de development of the AI market.
AI to address societal challenges
Climate and environment
In line with the efforts outlined in the European Green Deal, the national AI strategy proposes to encourage the development of a national programme for “efficient and sustainable algorithms (green algorithms)” to maximise the energy efficiency of AI systems and foster the use of AI as a part for solving problems related to the environment.
With respect to the COVID-19 outbreak, the national AI strategy highlights the importance of drawing lessons from the crisis, to take corrective actions in the future and to better prepare healthcare systems for these types of events. AI is for instance being applied to support the diagnosis and treatment of coronavirus outbreaks, to screen severity of diseases of patients, to disinfect healthcare facilities and to help minimising social contacts. For the latter, multiple applications for smartphones have been developed, while predictive modelling and simulation systems are often used for disease detection and prevention. Concrete action plans and initiatives developed or supported by the Spanish Government include:
- The launch of a COVID-19 fund: in June 2020 the Spanish Government approved COVID-19 Fund of EUR 16 billion for regional governments to finance costs stemming from the pandemic, particularly for the health system, together with an increase in items for education. A part of the budget will be allocated to support platforms for teachers, pupils and education authorities through the application of AI;
- The assessment of lockdown measures: in April 2020, a new project by the National Scientific Research Council (CSIC) employed computer science and data science techniques to assess the effectiveness of lockdown measures in halting the spread of COVID-19. The project uses AI tools and data science, and integrates big data in real time on human mobility, geo-localised surveys and computational models;
- The development of a conversational assistant Hispabot-COVID19 function via WhatsApp. This is an automatic channel, set up by the government, for enquiries that uses AI and natural language to respond to concerns from the public about COVID-19 with official, precise and updated information;
- In April 2020, the project DataCOVID was developed in collaboration with the National Statistics Institute (INE). DataCOVID employs big data to analyse anonymous data compiled on movements of the population during the state of alarm to enhance an efficient data-based decision-making in different regions during the pandemic;
- The AsistenciaCOVID-19 - an official self-diagnosis application - was created by the State Secretary for Digitalisation and Artificial Intelligence (SEDIA) to free up the healthcare hotlines in the different regions and offer official information and convey trust to people;
- The development of a personnel assistant application using AI technology to respond to frequently asked questions about COVID-19. This natural language processing tool is developed by SEDIA through the National plan for advancement in natural language processing.
Spanish 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 March 2020, Carlos III Health Institute launched a funding initiative to finance projects that improve knowledge about the COVID-19 virus and how to handle the disease in the short term. Among the envisaged fields of research there is the use of AI and integrated big data analysis tools aimed at the epidemiological control of COVID-19.
In addition, Spanish businesses have participated in the pan-European #EUvsVirus hackathon, which aimed to collect and promote innovative ideas to fight against the coronavirus. PoCOVIDscreen is one of the winning projects headquartered in Spain, proposing a tool for detecting COVID-19 from ultrasound recordings with AI.
Finally, Spain 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 development and the implementation of the Spanish AI strategy involves a wide range of governmental bodies, and SEDIA is in charge of coordinating and monitoring the AI strategy. This newly-established body harmonises the actions of ministerial departments, public and private stakeholders. Furthermore, the Advisory Council on Artificial Intelligence, a new consultative body, supports the development and implementation of the AI strategy by providing advice and recommendations on the policy measures to develop AI in Spain.
Since policy needs in the field of AI may change quickly over time, the national AI strategy is a living and flexible document. For this reason, the Spanish Government will revise and update the national AI strategy within two years.
Spain (2020a). ENIA Estrategia Nacional de Inteligencia Artificial. Gobierno de España. https://www.lamoncloa.gob.es/presidente/actividades/Documents/2020/021220-ENIA.pdf
Spain (2020b). Spanish digital agenda 2025. Gobierno de España. https://www.lamoncloa.gob.es/presidente/actividades/Documents/2020/230720-Espa%C3%B1aDigital_2025.pdf
Spain (2020c). Plan de Recuperacion, Transformacion y Resiliencia. Gobierno de España. https://www.lamoncloa.gob.es/presidente/actividades/Documents/2020/07102020_PlanRecuperacion.pdf
Spain (2019). Spanish RDI Strategy in Artificial Intelligence. Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities. http://www.ciencia.gob.es/stfls/MICINN/Ciencia/Ficheros/Estrategia_Inteligencia_Artificial_EN.PDF