Promoting AI while safeguarding users

I think we won’t be able to distinguish between decisions made by AI systems and by our fellow humans by the year 2032

Artificial intelligence (AI) technologies are increasingly prevalent in our lives—from digital voice assistants to personalised advertising and entertainment or advanced medical diagnostics.

I believe the EU has positioned itself as the most forward-looking, advanced, and ambitious hub for AI technologies in the globe, as it has shown recently as it embarked on becoming the first major regulator anywhere in the world, to have a comprehensive and robust AI regulation that legislates on the AI systems which we already find all around us.

The legislative proposal however is not an isolated initiative, since the EU Commission had already published its AI package in 2021, which included its plan to foster a European approach to AI, a review to the Coordinated Plan on AI (initially published in 2018) and the regulation proposal which I’ve already mentioned. This, naturally, is in conjunction with the massive financial investment made by EU institutions in developing AI across the continent.

With regards to investment, if we want to take a look at the past, results show that prior to COVID-19 (in 2019), the EU invested between €7.9 and €9 billion in AI. Was this enough? Definitely not, and the European Investment Bank was very clear that there was a shortfall of up to €10 billion in investments that was holding Europe back when compared to other markets like the USA and China.

Going forward however, through the Horizon Europe and Digital Europe programmes, the Commission plans to invest almost €1 billion per year in AI. Apart from its direct investments, it will help the private sector as well as individual member states mobilise additional funds to reach an annual investment volume of €20 billion over the course of what we’re calling the digital decade.

Benefits and misuse

The EU needs a progressive, enforceable legal framework on AI focusing on promoting trustworthy, human-centric AI systems that uphold fundamental rights and protect people, especially those most at risk. In this context, the AI Act proposed by the European Commission and discussed during the S&D AI action day clearly and once again gives the EU the role of global standard-setter and provides the means to define the kind of AI we want in Europe. Once adopted, the new rules will regulate AI systems and identify the risk categories of AI applications, especially unacceptable or high-risk applications.

Unacceptable risks are those applications of AI which resemble the government-run social scoring processes currently happening in the People’s Republic of China. The EU plans to ban these practices and as a political group, the S&D wholeheartedly agrees, however we want to take this a step further. The current EU proposal only seeks to ban social scoring if is done by the Government, the S&D Group is asking the EU Commission to ban the use of social scoring by private entities as well in its updated proposal. We all know that global tech giants wield as much power as some Governments, and it would only be fair to widen the scope of the regulations to make sure they are covered in this respect.

High-risk applications such as scanning tools that rank applications will be subject to specific legal requirements whilst other applications not explicitly banned or listed as high-risk are largely left out of the proposed regulations.

As a group, we are also proposing further improvements to the Commission proposal to ensure that people are able to question and understand new technologies, as well as they have the right to seek redress when their rights have been harmed and they have been affected by negative uses of AI.

Artificial Intelligence Action Day

The S&D Group’s Artificial Intelligence Action Day, which took place on the 1st of December was organised by the digital formation, which I am charing and responsible for as the S&D Vice-President for digital policy. In the last few years, the S&D group has been making significant policy changes on digital files at the European level, such as DSA, DMA, and the Universal chargers. The new AI proposal is another example where the S&D leads the negotiations and makes a real difference in people’s lives. The EU’s plans to position itself as a global leader in this field are quite ambitious and require an extensive dialogue with all stakeholders at an EU level to ensure that the sector’s regulation is effective and fair.

For us as a group, it is also essential to involve people, professionals, academics, and students at a local level, and that is why we decided to go back to our countries and create a cross-country stakeholder consultation and discussion. The AI action day connected stakeholders from four countries - Malta, Italy, Spain, and Denmark - in one big event.

We listened to each other and gathered feedback from the people on the ground, who have been the pioneers in the AI sphere for many years, to make sure we are in tune with what they expect from policymakers and that our attempts to ameliorate Commission proposals are still up to date in this fast-moving environment. At a national level, we need to talk about AI in realistic terms that treat it as the contemporary and core component in our daily lives, which it already is.

The digital event was an excellent opportunity for Maltese AI leaders to engage with their foreign counterparts and share practical experiences that inspire politicians to make the right choices. The discussions in Malta focused, in particular, on remedies and redress rights to ensure that people can question and understand new technologies and can be protected when their rights have been harmed.

Malta and AI

I think the Maltese Government has already made significant strides in this field, with a strategic document outlining Malta’s vision for artificial intelligence up to 2030 published in October of 2019. These documents are a great starting point, but naturally they need to be followed-up with real investment and the creation of an environment which fosters innovation.

I am optimistic in this sense, since the TechMalta database already shows dozens of start-ups and established companies operating in this field and we are integrating AI processes in the public sector for the benefit of end-users. The private sector is also responding well to the emergence of AI and I believe Malta has what it takes to become a leader in this innovative field.

The EU needs to provide the right tools to Member States and incentivise the inclusion of Artificial Intelligence and connected subjects in the national curricula of educational institutions for both the young and old. To recap, I believe that formal and informal education must be coupled with targeted media campaigns which ensure that a clear and fair picture of the EU’s plans in this sector reaches all European households, irrespective of educational and social background.

The AI revolution we are currently experiencing may provoke fear and confusion, especially in the elderly cohorts of our society. The EU must counter this with the diffusion of knowledge and meaningful dialogue at all levels.

The near future

I think we won’t be able to distinguish between decisions made by AI systems and by our fellow humans by the year 2032.

I am hopeful that this level of sophistication, accuracy and empathy in AI decision-making helps us a human race develop our potential by unlocking time and effort which was previously dedicated on mundane and repetitive tasks, and redirecting this time and effort to more meaningful and rewarding activities that bring us even closer as a community.