The European Parliament’s Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) recently voted in favor of Eva Maydell MEP (BG, EPP)’s opinion on the Artificial Intelligence (AI) Act. The advice received strong support from the committee with 61 votes in favor and just two against. Seven parliamentary committees are examining the proposal and Member States are still coordinating their positions; but while the French hand over the EU presidency to the Czechs, EU40 – the platform of young pro-European MEPs – organized a multi-stakeholder discussion with leading actors and experts in the Microsoft Center to take stock of where we stand and to assess whether the EU strikes the right balance.
The European Commission unveiled its proposal in April 2021 with the aim of making Europe a global hub for trusted AI. The proposal is the first of its kind. Vestager’s Executive Vice-President Werner Stengg, Chief Advisor to AI, said: “When we drafted our white paper, it was literally a white paper. We had worked on the issues in the OECD and with others, but it hadn’t been done before and we would be first in setting global standards.”
Moderator Alessandro Da Rold, General Manager at EU40, asked Stengg how the Commission has struck a balance between strict protection of fundamental rights and promoting innovation. Stengg said the fact that there was much debate in parliament about which committee should take the lead in the report was a reflection of the law’s scope. However, he said that for the Commission it was about innovation versus trust.
“We wanted to unleash the potential of these technologies for industry and society, but address the risks,” said Stengg. “By tackling this in a unified way, providing trust and legal certainty, by getting the right definitions, we give developers in Europe the confidence to develop solutions within the single market. And then it’s “go, go, go!” as my boss [Vestager] would say.”
Maydell said the eyes of the world were on Europe: “While we think AI is too important to leave unregulated, it’s even more important that Europe regulates well.” She said the debate focused on controversial issues such as the use of biometric facial recognition, which, while important, is only 5% of the story. She wanted to put the spotlight on the other 95% of AI developments.
By providing trust and legal certainty, by getting the right definitions, we give developers in Europe the confidence to develop solutions within the internal market. And then it’s “go, go, go!
Maydell said her view focused on the EU’s exclusive or shared competences and placed a particularly strong emphasis on the involvement of SMEs and start-ups. For example, she has proposed the creation of an EU AI Regulatory Sandboxing Program for a compliance-by-design approach. She said AI systems developed specifically for research are beyond the scope of the law. She emphasized that for wider adoption of these technologies, businesses and citizens alike must have confidence in the system’s value chain.
Cornelia Kutterer, Microsoft’s Senior Director for European Government Affairs, welcomed Maydell’s opinion. “When the president of the Ursula von der Leyen announced that the Commission would come up with a proposal in 100 days, we wondered what this would look like in reality?”
Microsoft started thinking about what was needed and developed its own AI governance model that set standards for technicians for salespeople who work with customers to address sensitive issues. Microsoft identified three areas: fundamental and human rights; the risks of physical or psychological harm; and, risks of serious consequences and impacts on people’s lives. These turned out to be in line with the Commission’s thinking.
Microsoft then looked at how to operationalize these principles. “Our engineers were very interested, but open questions like: does your AI system have an impact on fundamental rights, didn’t really help. So what we did is we turned the principles into results, making it easier for engineers to find solutions,” said Ketterer. “Let’s say, the fairness principle, you could determine that you want the same quality of service for different demographics. That is a result that is understood and that engineers can try to resolve. That’s why we help design tools to advance these principles.”
Johnson & Johnson Senior Director for Digital Health and Chair of MedTech Europe’s Digital Health Committee Angel Martin brought insights from his industry: “We need to strike a balance between what constitutes good horizontal legislation and the wider ecosystem. We are working with the EU Medical Device Regulation We must avoid duplication and confusion between the AI law and this regulation or we will deter innovation.”
Martin thinks AI is still in its infancy and emphasizes that it is not a panacea. He gave examples of how it can be used to aid in clinical trials and to improve outcome for patients in the operating room: “We can see that sometimes, even with the same surgeon, there is variation in patient outcome. Using AI, we can optimize results and help a surgeon make better decisions. So there are great opportunities, but there are also limitations.”
The panel was faced with a number of questions from a lively audience; issues from how to improve communication and understanding around AI, to how enforcement of the law’s provisions would work in practice were raised.
The Czech presidency has already submitted a document isolating the main problems to be solved and Parliament hopes that their report can be adopted in the autumn. Maydell urged all actors to understand the law in its broader geopolitical context: “I think it’s very clear that we can’t talk about technology without geopolitics. We cannot ignore the true power struggle between democracies and autocracies. While we’re in the negotiations ahead, I hope we can really keep this bigger picture in mind. †