European Commission woos US over AI agreement

By on 17/12/2020 | Updated on 17/12/2020
AI: The European Commission is seeking an agreement with the US. Credit: Erich Westendarp/Pixabay

The president of the European Commission has announced that she is discussing an artificial intelligence (AI) agreement with counterparts in the US government, in a move that adds further complexity to multilateral cooperation on the subject. 

In her acceptance speech at the World Leader for Peace and Security Award on Saturday, Ursula von der Leyen paid homage to the relationship between Europe and America and said that partnership was needed more than ever, not least in the digital world.  

“This is why the EU proposes to start work on a transatlantic AI agreement,” she said. “We want to set a blueprint for regional and global standards aligned with our values: human rights, and pluralism, inclusion and the protection of privacy… a transatlantic dialogue on the responsibility of online platforms. Together, we could set the blueprint for other democracies facing the same challenges to make sure that algorithms and AI are a force for good.” 

Ethical EU AI

In the speech, von der Leyen emphasised that AI must serve citizens’ needs and respect the rule of law – and made a clear distinction between western democracies and China. “Yes, Europe embraces innovation and entrepreneurship, and yes, we are eager to explore the full potential of AI for our industry and services,” she said.  

“But we will never lose sight of those who are meant to benefit from these technological wonders – our citizens. What sets Europe apart from competitors like China is not the size of our tech sector or how attractive we are for venture capital. What sets Europe apart from competitors is the fact that our values come first. Human beings come first.” 

The timing of von der Leyen’s comments was significant. With Joe Biden set to take over the presidency within weeks, it is clear that the European Commission is seeking to build a stronger relationship with the new administration than it was able to achieve with Donald Trump’s. 

The signals are that her call may be heeded. Eric Schmidt, former Google chief executive and chair of the US National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI), made similar comments in October. What’s more, the US and EU are already negotiating a data privacy agreement, something that is seen as crucial for boosting transatlantic digital trade.  

A spokesperson for the NSCAI told Politico earlier this week that the AI and data privacy agreements “recognise the fundamental and urgent need for the US and EU to collaborate in promoting technological advancement in a manner that enhances human welfare, encourages innovation and economic growth, and advances global security, and in responding to authoritarian uses of technology that undermine free and open societies.” 

Complex picture

Von der Leyen’s proposal, if accepted, would add another layer to what is already a crowded landscape. In September, the UK and US signed an agreement on AI research, which described cooperation between the two countries as a “shared vision for driving technological breakthroughs in artificial intelligence”.  

The declaration also talked of the opportunities to increase collaboration in research and development (R&D). “We intend to establish a bilateral government-to-government dialogue on the areas identified in this vision and explore an AI R&D ecosystem that promotes the mutual wellbeing, prosperity, and security of present and future generations,” it said. 

The deal came just months after the launch of the Global Partnership for AI (GPAI), which currently comprises the G7 nations – including the UK and US – and is dedicated to the responsible adoption of AI based on the shared principles of “human rights, inclusion, diversity, innovation and economic growth”.  

The US had initially declined to join, arguing that the group’s approach focused too heavily on regulation, which it feared could hamper US innovation. However, it changed its mind following negotiations in May, having decided that by joining the group it would be better able to counter China’s growing dominance in the field of AI, which is widely seen as a threat to civil liberties. 

The US-UK deal raised eyebrows within other GPAI nations. “We want to work on a ‘Global Partnership on AI’ — but these two countries want to work together in a bilateral way, as well,” Liesje Schreinemacher, a member of the European Parliament for the liberal Renew Europe group, told AI: Decoded. “I’m wondering what brought that upon them and what that means for the GPAI.”  At the time, Politico reported that lawmakers in Brussels were worried that the US was trying to undermine the EU’s efforts to implement AI rules for the bloc by striking individual deals with European countries, quoting Schreinemacher as saying: “If we want to export our own technology to the US and if we want to import US technology to the EU, we should try to have the same standards.” 

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