The need for good in times of 'digital cold war'
Andrea Renda, AI Expert Group, European Commission, Belgium
AI technology can be harnessed to help the less fortunate.
When looking at man-made disasters such as climate change, mass shootings and the rise of populism and nationalist stances against migration and diversity, the mounting fear of robots and AI may appear preposterous. And yet, this powerful, pervasive family of technologies is the most promising, and the most threatening development for mankind and the planet: as world-renowned scientist Stephen Hawking once put it, "either the best, or the worst thing, ever to happen to humanity".
On the one hand, AI and complementary technologies (such as the Internet of Things) can make the difference "for good", for example by improving agriculture and industry, or winning the war against cancer. On the other hand, strategic use of AI increasingly powers cyber-warfare and real-life weapons, threatens to manipulate democracy through so-called "deep fakes" (perfectly emulating the appearance of known public figures), or to exacerbate inequality and discrimination by depriving classes of citizens, on a massive scale, of their most basic rights to privacy and free speech.
Not surprisingly, developed countries have developed and published strategies on AI. But very few of these aim at using AI "for good". Superpowers such as the US and China are more fascinated by the potential of AI to help them overtake each other, than by AI's outstanding potential to achieve sustainable development: the resulting rivalry, visible on many fronts from massive trade tariffs, accusations of currency manipulations and the "Huawei ban", is steering resources away from the useful applications of AI, towards the most useless and dangerous.
Faced with this escalation, some countries and regional blocs are begging to differ.
Nations like Japan, Canada and France have advocated "AI for good", and proposed the creation of an Inter-Governmental Panel on AI (IPAI), modelled on an existing panel for climate change. The IPAI, however, may never see the light due to resistance of the two largest superpowers. The EU is developing perhaps the most ambitious "AI for good" strategy, in coordination with its Member States and the enthusiastic involvement of civil society. Thanks to the creation of a High-Level Expert Group on AI (full disclosure: I am one of the members), it adopted ethical norms and principles for AI (in April 2019), and is now testing these principles on the ground to make ethically adherent AI a reality. In June this year, the EU expert group also recommended a moratorium on lethal autonomous weapons, as well as a ban on mass surveillance and social credit scoring.
Europe's quest for trustworthy AI is so deeply rooted in public opinion that the new President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has promised to adopt a new policy on the human and ethical consequences of AI in the first 100 days of her new mandate (officially starting on November 1). However, raising ethical standards may prove insufficient. It will take proactive policies, and a strong political commitment, to avoid that AI is used mostly to squeeze (even more) data from consumers, or to achieve military leadership. Hence, Europe's AI policy is a fascinating trip to an unknown destination, which may require twists and turns that are hard to anticipate. A journey worth pursuing to ensure that AI is put to its best possible use.
AI technology can be used to uplift the people.