The massive rollout of artificial intelligence (AI) entails a technological leap that will cause (that is already causing) very substantial changes in the labor market, in the relationship with public authorities, in personal relationships and even in our own domestic life.
Any technological progress carries benefits and risks. When Dworkin spoke of science, he highlighted its ambivalence both as a promise and as a threat. When we talk about artificial intelligence, we talk about benefits and/or risks on a scale not previously known, taking into account its intrinsic power. Due to its characteristics and its potential, this technology will take us through dizzying changes that would otherwise take generations. Fortunately, AI provides us with powerful tools to better address the major challenges of our time: the fight against climate change, the fight against depopulation; and even to anticipate future pandemics such as COVID19, which has put up against the ropes our resilience as societies, and that we can now better address by accelerating research on drugs, vaccines, and developing state-of-the-art tracking applications.
As the regulatory superpower it claims to be, Europe must lead the way globally. I champion a broad pact between the public and private sectors, each within the scope of their competences, that enables the unimpeded promotion of technological development on the one hand, and an ecosystem of trust for the European citizens’ peace of mind on the other. The ultimate goal of AI can only be the improvement our societies and our citizens’ lives.
Early this year, the European Commission published a White Paper on artificial intelligence together with a digital strategy –and by the beginning of 2021, it intends to release an all-encompassing regulation on the phenomenon. In this regard, the European Parliament is one step ahead: I had myself the honor of being the rapporteur for the first European legislative initiative on the “Ethical aspects of artificial Intelligence, robotics and related technologies”, approved this past October with an extraordinary backing by the plenary of the Parliament, with the intent to indicate the Commission our ideas and positions related to the future regulation.
As noted above, Europe wants and can pioneer the legal establishment of an ethical threshold that both protects European citizens from the possible adversities that this technological evolution entails, and provides an added value of trust to European AI in the world. An ethical threshold consistent with our European principles and values, reflected in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, and congruent with our civilizing project. A legislation inspired by a humanistic approach and focused on technological development. A regulation applicable to both, AI developed in Europe or willing to operate in the Union, and with the aim of becoming a basic framework shared throughout the world on minimum requirements in the development and use of this technology.
The planning of the sector should not be left off solely in the hands of the market. From the Parliament, we assert the need for public participation that safeguards objectives beyond the possible economic profitability, so that the measurable aspects in terms of social profitability are also the subject of research and development: better public services, social responsibility, environmental sustainability, gender equality… I also perceive as essential a public-private collaboration that allows mobilizing the sufficient amount of resources needed to catch up with the investment efforts done in other parts of the world -such is the strategy that the Commission itself proposes in its White Paper.
From a regulatory viewpoint, it is clear that the Union understands the need to establish a demanding framework for safeguarding citizens’ rights, as well as the essential principles contained in the Lisbon Treaty. Nonetheless, we also believe that certain margin of maneuver is essential for the operators, and that they are the ones who assume the need to bind themselves with an ethical model in the development and deployment. Legislators are aware of the need not to establish an oppressive regulatory framework that stifles the initiative, and also that it will be impossible to understand such a complex and changing reality without a flexible framework that does not become obsolete with the arrival of the following innovation. Likewise, one of the main objectives is to avoid the fragmentation of the European digital internal market, while also complying with the sacred principle of subsidiarity. That is why the report approved by the Parliament designs a top-down governance model: a European coordinating body able to harmonize the regulatory development throughout the Union and to adapt quickly to technological developments; and entities responsible for administering and enforcing standards at the national level. There has been an intense debate around who should exercise that role without the report ending up unraveling it. In my opinion, the existence of a European agency in charge is necessary, with sufficient rule to avoid the need to regulate every small change that this constantly growing technological environment is generating.
The report approved by the European Parliament puts emphasis on the control of the so-called “high-risk applications”, for which it provides controls prior to their use and throughout their operation, as it establishes demanding obligations related to transparency, auditability and reversibility. To define this high risk, the text proposes a combination of categories referring to the degree of predictability of putting a community or an individual at risk, the use and the sector where it will be used. Through this mixed system we intend to give legal certainty to the system and, at the same time, generate what has to be known as “trustworthy ecosystem”.
Our objective is also that the design, the development, the control and the supervision of this regulatory framework be participated by all citizens, and especially by the most involved or affected individuals and groups. The text establishes a mandate for all European and national supervisory bodies so that, in an indispensable way and periodically, they have the assistance and participation of civil society in the design of the main characteristics of the model, with special attention to integrate the perspective of the small and medium companies, the unions, or the consumers. We intend not only a co-responsibility on the compliance and enforcement, but also their inclusion somehow or other in the design of the governance mechanisms for the entire system.
Finally, I would like to highlight the need to incorporate the general public into the debate and knowledge of the implications of AI. This debate cannot be only reduced to a group of experts, operators, legislators and even associations and groups of users. Such a disruptive technology has to be subject to democratic control; societies as a whole have to be aware of this reality and be able to make big decisions about the models of society they want. For this reason, I prefer to talk about “digital literacy” rather than “acquisition of digital skills” -and I believe that it is the duty of public authorities to make the main concepts understandable to their citizens and to guarantee a mature public debate around AI. In this, the very survival of democracy is at stake, taking into account the disturbing social effects that an uncontrolled application of AI can have in some areas.