EU seeks to take on AI world leaders while protecting public

By on 19/02/2020 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Ursula von der Leyen called for a coordinated European approach on the human and ethical implications of AI as part of her bid to become president of the European Commission. (Image courtesy: Mueller/MSC via flickr).

The European Union has unveiled proposals to promote the ethical, trustworthy and secure development of artificial intelligence (AI) in a bid to challenge Silicon Valley’s and China’s dominance in the emerging technology. The aim is to attract €20bn (US$21.5bn) of investment in AI per year over the next decade, while protecting citizens from the risks posed by AI.   

The proposals are set out in a white paper, Artificial Intelligence – a European approach to excellence and trust, published by the European Commission on 19 February. It is part of the bloc’s wider digital and data strategy, which aims to boost the region’s competitiveness.

The white paper centres around two key building blocks: a policy framework designed to create an ‘ecosystem of excellence’ along the entire value chain, beginning in research and innovation, and to create the right incentives to accelerate the adoption of AI; and a future regulatory framework aimed at creating an ‘ecosystem of trust’.  

Building an ‘ecosystem of excellence’ designed to support the development and uptake of AI across Europe would require a “step up action at multiple levels”, according to the Commission, including focusing the efforts of the research and innovation community; developing skills; partnering with the private sector; promoting the adoption of AI by the public sector; and securing access to data and computing structures.

As part of this, the Commission aims to extend 2018’s Coordinated Plan on AI, facilitate the creation of excellence and testing centres that can combine European, national and private investments, and establish networks of leading universities and higher education institutes “to attract the best professors and scientists and offer world-leading masters programmes in AI”.

The Commission also proposes to set up a new public-private partnership in AI, data and robotics.

It is hoped these measures will help the EU to catch up with technology world leaders, the US and China. Data recently published by the World Intellectual Property Organisation showed that Chinese and US firms account for about 85% of AI-related patents globally.

An ‘ecosystem of trust’

As for building an ecosystem of trust, the report says this is a “policy objective in itself, and should give citizens the confidence to take up AI applications and give companies and public organisations the legal certainty to innovate using AI”.

It is “vital that European AI is grounded in our values and fundamental rights such as human dignity and privacy protection,” the report says.

The focus is on high-risk AI systems – such as those used in medical equipment, automated driving, or to make decisions on social security payments – “in order to avoid unnecessary burden for companies to innovate”, the Commission says.

Legal requirements for high risk AI applications could consist of key features such as data and record keeping, robustness and accuracy, and human oversight, along with “specific requirements for particular AI applications, such as those used for purposes of remote biometric identification”.

EU leaders said they wanted to open a debate on when to allow facial recognition in remote identification systems, which are used to scan crowds to check people’s faces against those on a database and are considered one of the most intrusive forms of the technology.

Society empowered by data

The white paper on AI is accompanied by the European strategy for data, which sets out a number of policy measures designed to help the EU “become a leading role model for a society empowered by data to make better decisions – in business and the public sector”.

It asserts that the “value of data lies in its use and re-use” and that “currently there is not enough data available for innovative re-use, including for the development of artificial intelligence”. It proposes that new data ecosystems be built that can serve as the basis for AI development.  

It notes that authorities should be able to test and certify the data used by the algorithms that power AI – to avoid bias and discrimination, for example – in the same way they check cosmetics, cars and toys.

The proposals come after Ursula von der Leyen announced her ambition for a coordinated European approach on the human and ethical implications of AI and the better use of big data for innovation prior to taking up her role as the European Commission’s president.  

The public will have 12 weeks to comment on the proposals laid out in the AI white paper. The European Commission will then officially propose legislation later this year.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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