Can the European Union prevent an artificial intelligence dystopia?


Ursula von der Leyen

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen wants stricter controls on AI

Thierry Monasse/Getty Images

A European Union plan to regulate artificial intelligence could see companies that break proposed rules on mass surveillance and discrimination fined millions of euros. Draft legislation, leaked ahead of its official release later this month, suggests the EU is attempting to find a “third way” on AI regulation, between the free market US and authoritarian China.

The draft rules represent an outright ban on AI designed to manipulate people “to their detriment”, carry out indiscriminate surveillance or calculate “social scores”. Much of the wording is currently vague enough that it could cover the entire advertising industry or nothing at all. In any case, the military and any agency ensuring public security are exempt.


Then there are “high risk” activities which will be allowed, but subject to strict controls including measures to prevent bringing racial, gender or age bias into AI systems. These legislation mentions systems to automate assigning places at schools, colleges or universities, job recruitment, measuring credit scores or deciding the outcome of visa applications as possible targets. Companies in breach could be fined up to €20 million, or 4 per cent of global turnover.

In a way the news is no surprise, as the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, promised to urgently bring in AI legislation when she was elected in 2019. But Lilian Edwards at Newcastle University, UK, says that the draft will concern the tech industry. “I applaud the ambition. But you can’t imagine it getting through in this state,” she says.

Edwards compares the approach to the way EU regulates consumer products, which must meet certain requirements to be imported. “That’s much harder to do with AI as it’s not always a simple product. You’re heading inexorably towards a trade war with Silicon Valley, or weak enforcement,” she says.

China and the US have already made huge strides implementing AI in a range of industries, including national security and law enforcement. In China, the everyday movement of citizens in many cities is monitored by facial recognition and there are many public and private trials of a “social credit score” that will ultimately be rolled out nationwide. These scores can be lowered by infractions such as playing computer games for too long or crossing the street on a red light and can be raised by donating to charity. If your score drops too low, you may be denied rail travel or shamed in online lists.

Meanwhile, the US, where many tech giants are based, a light-touch, free market approach to regulation was encouraged by the former Donald Trump administration, while current president Joe Biden has taken no firm public stance.

Daniel Leufer at Access Now, one of the groups that has advised the EU in the past on AI, says Europe has long had a strategy to take a “third way” between the US and China on tech regulation, and says the draft legislation has promise.

But he warns that there are “big red flags” around some elements of the draft AI legislation, such as the creation of a European Artificial Intelligence Board. “They will have a huge amount of influence over what gets added to or taken out of the high risk list and the prohibitions list,” he says, meaning exactly who sits on the board will be key.

The EU has seen previous success in influencing global tech policy. Its General Data Protection Regulation, introduced in 2018, inspired similar laws in non-EU countries and in California, the home of Silicon Valley. Some US firms have simply blocked EU customers from accessing their services, however.

It remains to be seen whether the UK will follow the EU in cracking down on AI now that it has left the bloc. The UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy told New Scientist that the government has formed an independent panel called the Regulatory Horizons Council to advise on what regulation is needed to react to new technology such as AI.

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