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19 February 2020

EU unleashes ambitious AI regulatory agenda 'to make tech optimists of us all'

People, rights and risks top EU AI remit but lawyers warn of tensions over a regulatory agenda that may have a chilling effect

By Dr David Cowan

EU unleashes ambitious AI regulatory agenda

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen Shutterstock

European Commission (EC) president Ursula von der Leyen today promised an "open, fair, diverse, democratic and confident" digital future for the EU as she outlined the commission's vision for the regulation of artificial intelligence (AI).

But while legal experts welcomed the scale of the EC's ambition, they warned of the tension between a desire to promote innovation and the need to protect citizen's rights that could lead to a chilling effect on the development of new technology.

The EC's White Paper on Artificial Intelligence and European Strategy for Data were officially launched earlier today with some considerable fanfare.

In the process, the EC hooked AI to the political wagon of rights and what Von der Leyen described as “technological sovereignty” by which she meant “the capability that Europe must have to make its own choices, based on its own values, respecting its own rules. This is what will help make tech optimists of us all.”

The EC says it aims to create a true European data space - a single market for data - and to unlock unused data, allowing it to flow freely within the European Union. Von de Leyen set out the “ambition to shape Europe's digital future” covering cybersecurity, critical infrastructures, digital education and more.

To achieve this, the EC proposes first to establish the right regulatory framework regarding data governance, access and reuse between all stakeholders. This will entail, Von de Leyen said, “creating incentives for data sharing, establishing practical, fair and clear rules on data access and use, which comply with European values and rights”.

John Buyers, head of AI and machine learning at Osborne Clarke, welcomed the initiative. “The fact that the commission is considering this as an initiative is well timed,” he said. “Clearly the tech industry needs to apply more rigour around the collection and verification of datasets to improve their accuracy. Its tendency to rush sloppy and untested algorithmic models to market also needs to stop.”

Jo Joyce, senior associate - commercial technology and data group of Taylor Wessing, added: “The commission specifically positions Europe as the balanced and individual rights-focused alternative to the laissez-faire regulation-lite approach of the US and the contrasting model of strict government surveillance and control in China.”

But she warned: “The EU's desire to be the ‘global hub for data’ is going to be difficult to reconcile with its intention to enhance regulation in the areas of privacy, AI ethics, and cyber security.”

The proposed framework aims to create trustworthy AI based on excellence. Von de Leyen said: “We will act to ensure that AI is fair and compliant with the high standards Europe has developed in all fields.”

This includes setting out a new AI risk test that will assess whether both the sector and the intended use of AI involve significant risks.

Von de Leyen gave a broad definition of AI to cover “high-risk applications that can affect our physical or mental health, or that influence important decisions on employment or law enforcement".

The White Paper also states “there is a need to examine whether current legislation is able to address the risks of AI and can be effectively enforced, whether adaptations of the legislation are needed, or whether new legislation is needed".

Von de Leyen also raised the difficulty of machine learning, explainability and 'black box' opacity, when it is hard or even impossible to explain how an AI-assisted decision has been reached. 

Buyers noted: “Of course much of the commission's initiative will depend upon the standards that are finally agreed for such accuracy and reproducibility standards, but there will be concern in European R&D circles that this may have a chilling effect on 'bleeding edge' AI and machine learning development within the EU."

Earlier this month, influential UK government advisory body, the Committee on Standards in Public Life, came out against the establishment of a dedicated regulator for AI but warned that existing regulators need to do more to understand the challenges it poses.

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