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How advanced is Italy in frontier technologies?

Profound innovations like artificial intelligence are enablers of development, and Rome has vowed to prioritise it during its G-7 presidency in 2024. Italy may be trailing more advanced nations in areas like research and investments, but its industrial leaders harbour a surprising prowess that can boost the entire economy, according to a Digital Economy Centre (CED) report

Italy gauges its level of advancement. On Monday, the Digital Economy Centre (CED) unveiled its annual report with a heavy focus on frontier technologies and the Italian economy, mapping its strengths and weaknesses as the global AI race intensifies. It did so at the Italian Ministry for Enterprise and Made in Italy, headed by Minister Adolfo Urso, who promised that the Italian government would lead the way on AI governance during Rome’s presidency of the G-7 in 2024.

  • Italy, France and Germany reached an agreement on future AI regulation on Saturday, which is expected to accelerate the development of the European Union’s AI Act.
  • Minister Urso had agreed to cooperate on AI with his German and French counterparts in late October.

A stocktaking exercise. When taken as a whole, the country is in a somewhat “weak position”, although it has “the potential to increase its technological competitiveness,” reads the report, taking into account frontier products like AI, chips and quantum tech, as well as next-generation and satellite communications, cybersecurity and biometrics, energy and sustainability, automation, mobility and biotech.

AI as an example. Despite being the sixth-biggest source of AI-related scientific publications, Italy actually ranks 15th when considering the top 1% most cited papers. This is also partly true for the EU as a whole, where even the better-ranking countries – Germany, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy – trail the United States as well as China. AI-related patent filings also confirm such distances.

  • The ability to attract funding is also limited across the Old Continent. EU countries attracted a cumulative $100 billion in AI-related venture capital funds since 2012 – a far cry from the US’ $450 billion and China’s $250 billion.

Reasons for hope… The CED papers highlighted that neither metric is definitive when assessing the prospect of developing the digital economy, as lagging countries can embrace the innovation generated by more advanced ones – even though the capacity to absorb new tech decreases as the distance increases. In fact, Innovation Undersecretary Alessi Butti had spoken of Rome leading the G-7 by example by bridging its own digital delays by embracing tech innovation.

… and Italy’s trump cards. As things stand, the report identifies the country’s large national companies – those most capable of generating and implementing frontier technologies, most connected to the worlds of research and development and most involved in international markets – as the key for Italy’s digital development. As they operate in “highly strategic sectors, such as energy, communication networks and transport, security and aerospace,” they can “play a propulsive role for the entire economic system.”

  • The report’s authors noted that the best way forward is to enhance these companies’ initiatives in the field of innovation – laid out in the CED paper by representatives of Enav, Enel, Eni, Leonardo, Open Fiber and TIM.
  • The State must thus invest in them with a view of “maximising systemic synergies” and “favouring their replicability and scalability across the country” so as to let SMEs into the innovation drive, harnessing the country’s “excellencies” to put them at the service of the entire nation.

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