AI could deny vulnerable citizens public services, fears EU chief

By on 19/06/2023 | Updated on 19/06/2023

Artificial intelligence is likely to harm underprivileged citizens most, the European Union’s competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager has said, as speculation grows over AI’s threat to humanity.

Speaking to the BBC, Vestager said that while hotly debated scenarios in which AI leads to total annihilation of the human species remained unlikely, its use in assessing people’s eligibility for basic services came with high risk of discrimination.

She said her worry was that people would be ‘judged’ on their race, gender or place of residence, for example, rather than being “seen as who they are”.

“If it’s a bank using [AI] to decide whether I can get a mortgage or not, or if it’s social services in your municipality, then you want to make sure that you’re not being discriminated [against] because of your gender or your colour or your postal code,” Vestager said.

The EU is currently developing regulations around the creation and implementation of AI systems, and has classified its risks into four groups: unacceptable, high, limited, and minimal. The EU has applied this framework to assert that AI used to govern public services, including people’s credit scores, counts as high risk, meaning it would need to meet “clear requirements” to be implemented.

Vestager added that AI regulation had to be a “global affair”, though said leaders “shouldn’t hold their breath” for what she called “a UN approach”.

“We should do what we can here and now,” she said.

Upcoming webinar: AI for all? Addressing the biases in automation

In the US, president Biden has also voiced concerns about the risk of bias in AI and the implications for service delivery. In October 2022, the White House set out its plan to implement an AI Bill of Rights and highlighted “well documented” problems with AI, including algorithms pre-programmed with biases that could undermine healthcare and financial services for certain users.

However, the US and the EU also acknowledge AI’s potential. In February, the White House and European Commission signed what was described as “the first sweeping AI agreement” between the parties, which committed each to overcoming barriers to progress in AI with a view to improving agriculture, healthcare, climate forecasting and emergency response.

Growing fears

Worldwide, fears over AI have grown since the start of 2023, leading many governments to issue guidance around its use.

In the UK for example, The Telegraph newspaper revealed on 16 June that civil servants had been warned in official guidance not to share government secrets with AI language models such as ChatGPT.

“You should never input information that is classified, sensitive or reveals the intent of government (that may not be in the public domain) into any of these tools. You should have regard to the principles of GDPR,” the leaked guidance said, as reported by The Telegraph.

The six-page document also urged civil servants to be mindful of the potential biases in AI systems.

In February, in response to requests by a number of departments to clarify whether tools like ChatGPT could be used to automate tasks such as email and letter writing and repetitive work in policymaking, the UK Department for Science, Information and Technology advised civil servants not to get “swept away by the hype” around such tools.

It advised civil servants thinking about using artificial intelligence chatbots to automate tasks to weigh up the risks and benefits.

Last week, the Irish Data Protection Commission blocked Google from launching its Bard chatbot in the EU due to questions of compliance with GDPR rules.

Read more: G7 leaders ‘take stock’ of AI amid calls for shared governance standards

And the potential for AI to undermine public trust and national defence also continues to shape discussions. In the US for example, Craig Martell, the US Department of Defense’s chief digital and AI officer, said in May that society risked “trust[ing] [AI] too much without the providers of [services] building into it the right safeguards”, leaving government without the ability “to validate the information”. 

Though Vestager is sceptical that a global approach to AI regulation is imminent, the UK has announced that it is to host the first international AI summit this autumn, following a G7 meeting in May in which leaders recognised their common interests in AI governance.

On a visit to meet president Biden at the White House earlier this month, UK prime minister Rishi Sunak urged leaders to view AI with the “same spirit of urgency” as climate change, warning that the “pace of technological change is faster than people had anticipated”.

Read more: Treat AI with ‘same spirit of urgency’ as climate change, says UK PM

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About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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