Next European Commission takes aim at AI

Ursula von der Leyen, president-elect of the European Commission | Frederik Florin/AFP via Getty Images | Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images

Next European Commission takes aim at AI

Artificial intelligence will be the next GDPR.


7/18/19, 6:45 AM CET

Updated 7/22/19, 3:25 PM CET

The European Commission has given itself the mission of drawing up rules for the age of artificial intelligence over the next five years, building on its legacy as the world’s premier regulator of online privacy.

With Europe trying to catch up to China and the United States in developing AI, some researchers and tech companies have warned against hard rules they say could slow innovation.

But top EU officials are undeterred.

Ursula von der Leyen, the next European Commission president, has joined national governments and EU digital policymakers in calling for hard rules to govern artificial intelligence, sooner rather than later.

“In my first 100 days in office, I will put forward legislation for a coordinated European approach on the human and ethical implications of artificial intelligence,” the German former defense minister, who was narrowly confirmed by the European Parliament this week, wrote in her agenda for Europe.

Her predecessor, Jean-Claude Juncker, chose not to legislate on AI over the past five years, focusing instead on privacy, cybersecurity, copyright and telecoms.

But AI, which allows computers to do tasks that previously required human thinking, has grabbed policymakers’ attention. The prospect of major AI-linked disruption in industries such as health, agriculture and transport has fueled debate over whether hard rules are necessary, as well as over who should be in charge of writing them.

To determine the scope of regulation, the Commission relied on an expert group including academics, civil society and industry representatives.

The group recently said the EU should think twice about drafting new legislation.

But capitals want to push ahead. In late June, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she wants rules similar to the General Data Protection Regulation — Europe’s sweeping privacy reform — to see the light of day in the next five years.

“It will be the job of the next Commission to deliver something so that we have regulation similar to the General Data Protection Regulation that makes it clear that artificial intelligence serves humanity,” she said.

The European Commission’s digital department has already started working on such a plan, according to an internal document from June, seen by POLITICO. Artificial intelligence “carries huge promises (from treating chronic diseases …[to] anticipating cybersecurity risks), but also concerns (job losses, ethical implications),” it states.

The document is not final, and commissioners could choose not to follow up on the recommendations. But von der Leyen’s statements indicate she is ready to go in that direction.

Specifically, the Commission’s digital department recommends a regulatory framework for AI that would set transparency obligations on automated decision-making. The legislation would also require that AI systems be assessed to ensure they do not perpetuate discrimination or violate fundamental rights such as privacy.

Systems that could have a negative impact, such as facial recognition, would face “further constraints.” Voluntary measures, such as certifications or codes of conduct, could also be added to the framework.

A European industrial strategy for AI should also be defined, the Commission recommends. Investment in research and innovation should be increased by using EU programs from the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), such as Horizon Europe.

Janosch Delcker contributed reporting.

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Laura Kayali 

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