Promoting AI while safeguarding users | Alex Agius

The Socialists and Democrats group within the European Parliament is organising an Artificial Intelligence Action Day today. The purpose of the event is to exchange with civil society, academia and other stakeholders on four different priorities of the S&D group. The event will comprise four workshops, carried out at the same time in Malta, Italy, Denmark and Spain. BusinessToday spoke to Maltese MEP Alex Agius Saliba about the importance and benefits of AI as well as the need to safeguard users from any harm or exploitation

Alex Agius Saliba
Alex Agius Saliba

Artificial intelligence (AI) technologies are increasingly prevalent in our lives—from digital voice assistants to personalised advertising and entertainment or advanced medical diagnostics. What is the EU doing to ensure everyone benefits?

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.

In real terms, what has the EU invested in AI?

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.

As AI proliferates across a broad range of markets, sectors, and country contexts, so too will AI’s benefits, but also misuse and AI-related harms. How is the EU going to protect people – especially those most at risk – from being negatively impacted by the use of AI?

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.

Why are workshops such as these organised by S&D important on an EU-level but also on a national level?

The S&D Group’s Artificial Intelligence Action Day, taking place on the 1st of December is 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 will connect stakeholders from 4 countries - Malta, Italy, Spain, and Denmark - in one big event. The idea is to listen to each other and gather 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, organised on the 1st of December, is 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 will focus, 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.

Do you personally think Malta is doing enough to take advantage of the benefits of 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.

What can the EU do better to bring AI closer to the people, to help them understand its use and benefits and to mitigate any fears they might have about technology infringing on their daily lives?

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.

How do you see AI developing in the next 10 years?

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.

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