12 October 2020
Artificial Intelligence must benefit all citizens

Artificial Intelligence must benefit all citizens

Plenary session of the European Committee of the Regions

Artificial intelligence (AI) is fundamentally transforming the way we live, work and interact in Europe and across the world. From social media to healthcare, self-driving cars to online shopping, AI is affecting everyone’s lives, providing never imagined opportunities, but also hidden dangers. As world-famous theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking put it: "Success in creating AI would be the biggest event in human history. Unfortunately, it might also be the last, unless we learn how to avoid the risks."

In search of a human face

We are clearly entering into a true era of artificial intelligence, but humans have been dreaming about the possibilities of AI for much longer. A striking example is AI's first appearance in film in 1927: In his silent expressionist masterpiece Metropolis, German movie director Fritz Lang depicts a dark futuristic city, in which the working class and the city planners occupy two strictly separated two quarters.

The low-skilled workers, who live in the lower part of the city, perform their tasks like robots, and have lost their humanity by becoming part of the machines they work for. The élite, living in the city's upper part, have also lost their humanity by becoming slaves to their desires, which the machines are supposed to produce. In the movie, technological progress at the benefit of the few puts at stake cohesion and ultimately the very meaning of society.  

Since Metropolis, robots and Artificial Intelligence have both fascinated and terrified movie fans – and not only. Nearly a hundred years and some 20 world-class movies later, it has become clear that the rapid expansion of AI is going to profoundly change how we live and work in the years to come.

The question is therefore more urgent than ever: How can we make sure that in this process, everyone's rights and freedoms are guaranteed, that all can benefit from the opportunities AI offers and that it contributes to creating more sustainable, fair and inclusive societies? In other words, how can we put a truly human face to AI?


Not falling behind…

The new European Commission has made AI a strategic priority for the next five years. Presented in February this year as part of its digital strategy for 2020-2025, the European Commission's White Paper on Artificial Intelligence sets out its vision on key policies and investment in AI. The overall aim is to accelerate artificial intelligence deployment by the private and the public sector.

Meanwhile, existing EU rules to protect consumers, address unfair commercial practices and protect personal data and privacy, continue to apply. For so-called high-risk sectors, such as health or transport, the Commission considers that AI systems should be transparent, traceable and guarantee human oversight. For those considered lower risk AI applications, it envisages a voluntary labelling scheme if they apply higher standards.

Pushing forward rather soft rules  for AI is the approach of those anxious that Europe is falling behind in the "global AI race".

…versus leaving no one behind

From a Socialist point of view, we need to make sure that the development and use of AI technologies does not become a 'free race', but go hand in hand with setting standards on ethics. It is not about being the fastest runner, but about running the race together, putting putting people at the centre of this exercise.

As members of the Socialists and Democrats Group in the European Parliament rightly underline: "The aim is to protect our citizens and our fundamental rights by making sure that AI works for people. With legal certainty, we can create greater trust in new technologies. With a more trusted approach, we can contribute to boosting EU innovations in the digital field to benefit everyday people’s lives and to create opportunities for businesses, whatever their size."

A European Parliament's report on the ethical aspects of AI, led by Spanish Socialist MEP Ibán García del Blanco and approved in October at committee level, urges the European Commission to present a legal framework outlining the ethical principles to be used when developing, deploying and using AI robotics and related technologies in the EU, including software, algorithms and data. We need legislation "inspired by a humanistic and human-centric approach in technological development", García del Blanco stresses.


Shaping AI policies from the ground

Cities and regions are best placed to help create an environment propitious to boosting investment in AI in the coming years and building trust in AI, this is why they should be fully involved in shaping AI legislation and policies. There are already many inspiring examples on how cities and regions use AI to become more sustainable, such as the “AI-Grid” project, a research project on renewable energy by the University of Bielefeld and co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund.

Since the very beginning, AI has also played an important role during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the EU Regional and Local Barometer shows, digital technologies such as 3D printers and digital logistic management tools were, for instance,  successfully used for the production and dissemination of face masks in Barcelona, AI–based virtual phone assistants were employed by the French city of Nice, and recruitment robots by the municipality of Uppland-Bro in Sweden. 

"The strength of local communities and networks lies in open, interconnected and adapted local and regional cooperation. This can help in involving policymakers, the public and businesses in the development of AI applications, ethics and regulation", emphasises PES Group member Guido Rink, Member of the Executive Council of the Dutch city of Emmen, who is leading on the topic in the European Committee of the Regions. "At the same time, we need a common European approach to AI in order to avoid fragmentation of the single market, with future legislation and compliance monitoring applying to the entire life cycle of the AI application", he argues.


In his opinion, which was adopted at today's plenary session, Guido Rink calls for significant EU support to stimulate private and public investment in AI and highlights the importance of ensuring a level playing field in the European market, so that also small and medium-sized enterprises and start-ups can benefit from AI. AI has indeed a good potential to create new jobs and generate entrepreneurship.

He also stresses that particular attention must be paid to high-risk applications, such as biometric identification, to avoid discrimination and stigmatisation of individuals and populations.

Moreover, AI-specific rules should be set for the ownership of data, so as to ensure that they are shared by businesses with public authorities, for instance when it comes to regulating the platform economy.

Last but not least, the rapporteur calls for some solid social safeguards, such as the protection of labour rights in the face of fast robotisation, as well as for equal participation of all genders in the design, implementation and evaluation of ethics and norms. 

The European Commission will put forward a legislative proposal on Artificial Intelligence in early 2021, and the next months promise a heated debate on the topic, the essence of which goes once again back to the 1927 message of Fritz Lang: making sure that the most vulnerable citizens as well as workers are protected in this process.  

Progressive local and regional politicians will make their voice heard in the debate and do their best to ensure that Fritz Lang's dystopic vision remains strictly fictional, while they continue to fight for  inclusive, fair and sustainable cities and regions, in which no one is left behind, not least our common European values.



Photo credits: unsplash / Photos Hobby