Wednesday, January 27, 2021

In “geopolitics of bits and bytes”, Europe takes an independent approach on AI



      The outbreak of Covid19 a year ago intensified the debates about regulation of Artificial Intelligence. Given the role of AI technologies in fighting the pandemics, the attention of all stakeholders to its impact, both positive and negative, was all too obvious. As a result, the extensive use of these technologies by some governments to control the propagation of coronavirus brought to light controversial and disturbing aspects of AI. Human rights advocates and experts sounded the alarm about large-scale use of the facial recognition AI technologies for surveillance purposes. Beyond the pandemic situation, concerns were also raised about military use of Artificial Intelligence and other AI applications that could endanger privacy, amplify the polarization of societies and empower the autocrats. 

     Those concerns are raised periodically by members of the expert community and leaders of the hi-tech industry. Take for example Elon Musk, who already in 2014 said to MIT students: “I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence... I’m increasingly inclined to think that there should be some regulatory oversight, maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish.” However, the conference organized last week by the Council of Europe showed that now senior government representatives of the continent add their voices to those concerns, sending a clear message: Europe will not sit idle in face of this challenge. 

     The conference’s title “Human rights in the era of AI: Europe as an international standard setter for Artificial Intelligence” embodies the essence of Europe's ambitious goal. The conference was organized by Germany who took over the presidency of the Council of Europe last November and announced that the question of human rights and technologies will be one of its key priorities in this role. German minister of Foreign Affairs, Heiko Mass, who opened the conference set the tone for the discussions that followed when he declared, loud and clear, that it is for democratic parliaments and governments to decide on AI regulation. 

     Minister Mass emphasized two major elements of the European strategy of AI. First, he stressed the importance of developing Europe’s own capabilities in AI technologies and announced that to achieve this goal the EU budget earmarked 200 billion euro for digitalization. The second element of the plan is to establish European standards of Artificial intelligence that can create benchmarks worldwide”. According to him, the Council of Europe, working with European Union, possesses a significant legal framework and instruments to address the problems of AI regulation.  

     Beyond the operational items of its AI strategy, the European vision of the “geopolitics of bits and bytes” and “digital bipolarity” merits attention. German Minister of Foreign Affairs describes the emergence of two poles of power around Artificial Intelligence: the Chinese digital model that prioritizes surveillance, and the heavily market-oriented Silicon Valley model. Instead of choosing one side in this rivalry, Europe will be open to all partners who share the conviction that AI technologies should reinforce democracy and human rights, not erode them. Mr. Mass also had a message for the new US administration: while expressing hope that President Biden will be a partner to his vision, he asserted that

 “... we shouldn’t wait for Washington.  Our ambition must be to continue building our own European digital model that puts humans at the center, remains open to the world and protects our values and democracy.”

( Speech by Federal Foreign Minster Heiko Maas at the virtual conference “Human Rights in the Era of AI: Europe as an international standard setter for Artificial Intelligence”,

     The contours of the European digital model for AI regulation were first formulated in European Union’s Strategy for AI in 2018. In November 2019 the Council of Europe, another European multilateral organization, headquartered in Strasbourg and whose raison d'être is to safeguard democracy, rule of law and human rights in Europe, entered the fray and established a special ad-hoc Committee on Artificial Intelligence (CAHAI). Aside from expertise in human rights protection, the Council of Europe’s additional advantage in forging all-European consensus around AI regulation comes from its significantly larger membership. All European states, with exception of Belarus, are members in the Council, including Russia and Turkey; countries outside Europe also joined CAHAI as observers, among them USA, Canada, Japan and Israel. In December 2020 the CAHAI published a feasibility study, which provides concrete recommendations to the Council of Europe on regulation of AI technologies. 

     The major conclusion of this feasibility study, which was also presented in the conference, is that “an appropriate legal framework will likely consist of a combination of binding and non-binding legal instruments that complement each other”. The report further elaborated the role of binding regulations:

           “Any binding document, whatever its shape, should not be overly prescriptive so as to secure its future-proof nature. Moreover, it should ensure that socially beneficial AI innovation can flourish, all the while adequately tackling the specific risks posed by the design, development and application of AI systems.” 

(Ad-hoc Committee on Artificial Intelligence (CAHAI) Feasibility Study,

     In my conversations with representatives of national delegations to the Council it was quite clear that most of them agree with the emerging approach on AI regulation, even if some had some mild reservations. This impression was reinforced also at the conference where an absolute majority of the panelists, including CAHAI experts, agreed on the need to establish binding regulation. Interestingly, the only voice of dissent came from a representative of Japan who expressed concern about the negative impact of regulations on innovation. And yet, the prevailing opinion of the experts refused to see the contradiction between ethics and innovation, spoke in favor of binding regulations, while admitting that socially beneficial innovation should enjoy more flexible regulation.

     The work of the Committee will continue throughout 2021 with the goal to complete its mission by the end of the year. The Council’s goal of setting European standards for AI is ambitious. However, its determination to establish a European digital model looks stronger than ever. Its sense of direction and destination is admirable. Considering this, it would be sensible for like-minded countries outside of Europe to join the discussion and address together legitimate concerns and differences of opinion. Time is of the essence.

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