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6G, European internet, censorship: EU Parliament sets out vision for digital services

Research outlines trends for the coming decade and an action plan with some controversial recommendations to inform the decisions of policymakers around the upcoming Digital Services Act

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Europe’s controversial digital vision for the next decade

The European Parliament has published research outlining technology trends for the next decade, such as 6G, autonomous transport and personalised healthcare, along with recommendations to enable European countries to be at the forefront of digitisation, including the creation of a regional internet.

The study, requested by the European Parliament’s Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection (IMCO), was prepared by the Policy Department for Economic, Scientific and Quality of Life Policies of the Directorate General for Internal Policies. It covers new developments in digital services, as well as potential future directions and an action plan.

A key aim of the research is to inspire members of the European Parliament (MEPs) to be “bold and visionary” in decision-making around the Digital Services Act, which should be put forward in late 2020 as the legal framework in the European Union (EU) for digital developments over the next decade, and reach “thoughtful, ground-breaking and sophisticated decisions”.

Short-, medium- and long-term predictions for digital services, as well as a number of rules and standards that web services from non-EU countries would need to comply with, are included in the development study, as well as an action plan for MEPs ahead of the Digital Services Act.

Three underlying “mega trends” are also set out in the report to illustrate the developments of digital services in the EU – the seamlessness of digital services through human interaction (voice gesture and facial recognition), hyper-individualisation with tailoring of products and services for each consumer, and sustainability.

The overall gist of the report is that organisations will soon be fully digitised and companies in Europe will play an important role in that development process. It sets the scene with an introduction that mentions the accelerated digitisation prompted by the coronavirus pandemic that had emerged at the time of writing.

The authors acknowledge the importance of digital technology in facing the crisis and predict the 2020s and 2030s will be the “two most dynamic decades in human history”, and stress the importance of policymakers understanding new developments and opportunities.

“The European Union needs to develop an appetite for digital leadership if it wants to compete with worldwide developments and to participate proactively rather than reactively,” says the report.

Digital services driven by data and artificial intelligence (AI) will soon be deeply entrenched in the lives of all European citizens, and the Digital Services Act should “lay the groundwork to promote the digital leadership of Europe to be in control of unfolding developments”, the report says.

The study also warns about the need to prevent the misuse of digital tools, and urges the European Parliament to take “a leading stance in the global digitisation”.

However, the authors accept that while the ideas are, in a general sense, “benign and positive”, not much consideration has been given to the implications of the suggestions made. “We do not look too deeply into the risks and potentially dangerous scenarios, but rather attempt to understand the possible chances and opportunities,” the report notes.

When it comes to timescales for implementing the measures suggested in the report, the authors note that 2020 is very good timing for policymakers, despite the negative effects brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, given “very little scepticism” from the public about the wide use of e-commerce, remote working systems and tools such as contact-tracing apps.

“Now, in the aftermath of this pandemic, it’s the perfect time to act and to push for the ambitious goal of digitising Europe,” it notes.

Short-term trends: robots, 5G and payments

Task-based robots, 5G and seamless payments are the core areas of the predictions made “with a high degree of certainty” for the next two years. The report notes that by 2022, robots will have taken over most manual labour, starting with agricultural robots and leading to automation of more unskilled tasks.

“The investment needed for these robots will certainly be significantly reduced due to easier programming made possible by machine learning, as well as reduced manufacturing costs,” the report notes, adding that the next significant step will be general-use robots for a variety of tasks.

The report notes that technologies such as 5G will allow for the industrial internet of things (IIoT) to reach an even more advanced stage of development, enhancing supply chains and enabling more autonomous transportation – one of the trends outlined by the report for the medium term.

Seamless payments is another area the report sees as a trend building momentum in the short term, as it enables a more fluent way of commerce for consumers, especially in regard to digital services.

Cash will lose its share of use even more in the future, with digital payment systems taking over,” says the study. It adds that digital state-run or private currencies will grow and become widely accepted in the next two years.

The report also cites the benefit of reducing the shadow economy in EU states with the increase in cashless payments. “Each year, trillions of euros flow in the shadow market unregulated and untaxed, leading to long-term deficits,” it says.

“Traceability of electronic payments is much better than with cash, leading to more information on the flow of money. This information can be used to reduce tax evasion and make regulation easier, in turn reducing the shadow economy.”

Medium-term predictions: data-driven healthcare, digital workforce and sustainable supply chain

Between 2022 and 2025, a major trend outlined in the report will be data-driven healthcare and a move towards individualised health services, which rely more on prevention with a more active role of the patient in their health outcomes, rather than treatment.

However, the success of individualised healthcare will be linked to treating people as individuals when they become a patient, says the report. “An integral element to this concept is regarding healthcare as a holistic service that promotes a satisfying patient experience – both online and offline, and everything in between,” it adds.

According to the report, within that timeframe, commerce will also be seamless, building on the short-term trend of frictionless payments. It notes that online and offline shopping experiences will be merged more effectively, but raises questions over the large amounts of data required to enable that vision, through technologies such as facial recognition.

“Even very intimate data – like the allocation of pores in individual faces – is stored, measured and interpreted,” says the report. “This raises concerns about data security, ownership and privacy.

“Does the information about my pores belong to me or the company that measured them? Consumers and businesses alike demand further clarification on how to apply data regulations.”

The EU Parliament research also expects working relations to be even more transformed in the medium term, and a digital culture will be imperative in organisations as well as continuous learning to ensure relevance at work – and all of that supported by AI.

Companies are expected to focus on the environment just as much as economy, the study notes, which will put emphasis on sustainable supply chains. The research cites 3D printing as a potential solution for challenges presented by traditional supply chain methods, which would enable decentralised production and reduced stocks, while stimulating local production.

Long-term predictions: 6G, autonomous transport and DNA-based personalisation

The EU Parliament report anticipates the emergence of 6G as one of the main trends for 2030, which is expected to enable even more connectivity and autonomy in production and transportation.

Even though 5G has not yet reached the general public, the cellular system of the sixth generation is already being researched in countries such as China and Japan as well as Germany and Finland, the report notes. It adds that the new mobile services, which could be “somewhere between 10 and 8,000 times faster than 5G”, will be able to process the steadily growing amount of data and provide high-speed data flow.

When it comes to potential applications for 6G, the researchers mention that the new network would fit the needs for dealing with growing masses of data and would bring benefits to e-commerce, with players better able to serve customers with more information on their preferences, as well as ability of governments to offer services and accelerate research.

“The increased speed and capacity of streaming through 6G can broaden the access to European diversity, providing intelligence, scientific research and knowledge of different European institutions, companies and citizens in an efficient and affordable manner,” says the report.

Read more about EU technology policy

The study also considers “the connection of services or devices to the brain being of particular interest”, with possibilities such as managing those by “transmitting the large amount of data stream from our brains to other recipients”.

The authors cite potential challenges to make that happen, such as chip design, computer architecture and energy use, and the cost of high-performance chips. “The amount of data transmitted requires a great deal of energy, which will lead to extreme temperatures,” says the report. “Computer chips these days could not cope with the amount of data.”

Other trends to emerge in 10 years’ time include passenger autonomous vehicles, as well as shipments to be transported without delivery drivers. “New solutions, apart from regular cars and vehicles, can also extend into the air space,” says the report. “In this way, personalised, fast and secure transportation and logistics will be made possible.”

The researchers also anticipate the full personalisation of products, which will even rely on the use of DNA to achieve a better fit to satisfy consumers. This will be achieved through technologies such as advanced data analytics and AI, as well as voice activation and augmented reality (AR).

Such approaches will enable companies from sectors such as financial services, nutrition and cosmetics to tailor their offerings, says the report. “DNA testing and personalisation enable more engaged experiences beyond what traditional methods can do [in hyper-individualisation].”

Creating a European internet

The final chapter of the study outlines a short action plan and recommendations, with advice divided into three areas. The first presents a brief proposal for the creation of a regional internet and cloud.

According to the authors, this “could secure a reliable, trustworthy digital ecosystem in Europe” and foster a regional ecosystem based on data and innovation, and would drive competition and set standards, similar to what has happened in China in the past 20 years.

“The foundations of such a European cloud are democratic values, transparency, competition and data protection,” the report notes.

Foreign web services could become part of this envisioned digital ecosystem, but would need to comply with the rules and standards of the EU, the report says, listing examples such as democratic values, data protection, data accessibility, transparency and user-friendliness.

In technical terms, the report says creating a European internet in the Digital Services Act would require top-level infrastructure, a high-speed 5G or a 6G data network, and a regional firewall.

“Setting up such a network would promote many European companies and therefore boost business and drive innovation,” says the report, adding: “Like the Chinese firewall, this European internet would block off services that condone or support unlawful conduct from third-party countries.”

The second area of the action plan is about evolving digital government, which would entail funding European startups, which would use their expertise to create “the most digital and advanced government in the world”. This would be created alongside an already suggested Digital Europe Programme, with a proposed €9.2bn of funding from 2021 to 2027.

“The EU government and all the governments of the member states should lead by example and become the most modern digital government,” says the report. “Including and incentivising the private sector, especially innovative startups, could speed up the development of e-government systems in the EU.”

A communications programme is presented as the third recommendation. This would be a “visionary and exciting” programme, aimed at ensuring the regulations are in place, but also “encouraging boldness and showing a willingness to change”.

Quantum computing and increasing use of AI will have an impact on all sectors of digital services, the report points out, adding that the communications plan should deliver regular legislative updates of the Digital Services Act and also “educate and inspire” European citizens about these developments.

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