Europe poised to lead on rights-respecting artificial intelligence?

Next week, I will be flying to Helsinki, where the Council of Europe will bring together high-level experts from governments, international organizations, businesses, technology, academia and research, civil society, and the media for Governing the Game Changer — Impacts of artificial intelligence development on human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

As rightfully proclaimed in the event’s concept note, we are in the midst of another technological revolution. And, with the ability to affect individuals, communities, and institutions in a myriad of ways and on a grand scale, artificial intelligence has and will continue to present both opportunities and challenges that will impact billions.

We are pleased that the Council of Europe and the Government of Finland have co-organized this timely conference, which raises the question of whether Europe is ready and willing to engage constructively and openly on how we should address and navigate the impact of artificial intelligence on our society. It will hopefully help important stakeholders map out a way forward — one that will ensure that human rights in the age of artificial intelligence are at the center of our AI future.

As a regulatory trend setter, the E.U. launched its strategy on AI in April of last year. It aims not only to boost the E.U.’s technological and industrial capacity and AI uptake across the economy, but also to prepare for socioeconomic changes and to ensure an appropriate ethical and legal framework, based on the Union’s values and in line with the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the E.U.

Also, last year, in recognition of the growing importance of AI and its impact on the digitization of Europe, the European Commission launched a High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence to support the implementation of the European strategy on AI. Access Now’s European Policy Manager, Fanny Hidvégi, got selected to the expert group which is now working on ethics guidelines for trustworthy AI.

While we certainly welcome Europe’s desire to be at the forefront of artificial intelligence, it is important to remember that AI affects every aspect of human rights — from our right to privacy to our freedom of expression. In Access Now’s report, Human Rights in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, we look at the implications of the growth in AI-powered technologies through a human rights lens. Yes — AI could help bring about impressive technological advancement and innovation that could certainly benefit society, advancing healthcare and medicine, for example, and stimulating economic growth by creating new jobs and making existing jobs easier and more productive. However, AI technologies can be very easily used against us. Without respecting human rights and rule-of-law safeguards, AI technology has been and will continue to be used as a tool to enable discriminatory profiling, assist in the spread of disinformation, perpetuate bias in the job market, and drive financial discrimination against marginalized peoples.

As a society, we do not need to accept the use of AI everywhere. Indeed, there are areas where it should not be deployed, and the burden of proof should not be on society to demonstrate why that is so. Right now, it appears that AI is increasingly the default setting, and that civil society and other actors are scrambling to meet the responsibility of developing the right safeguards. In fact, it should be the other way around.

As identified in a report we recently released, Mapping Regulatory Proposals for Artificial Intelligence in Europe, the E.U. has the potential — and we argue, the responsibility — to lead the development of a user-centric AI by reaffirming its values and safeguarding rights.

By doing so, Europe has an opportunity to define the direction of AI innovation, growth, sustainability, and social impact. Regulation done right is an essential piece of this. The ultimate goal should be AI that benefits humanity by contributing to a more responsible and equitable society. By inviting multi-stakeholder input, considering risks, and setting rights-respecting standards, the E.U. could assert itself as a norm-setting leader on the world stage. Developing smart AI regulation that keeps the human factor at the center of the frame could and should be Europe’s unique offer.

Though Helsinki may be an important stepping stone in our discourse about the impact of AI on human rights, the conversation cannot afford to end there.

In June 2019, RightsCon, Access Now’s annual summit on human rights in the digital age, will be held in Tunis. The three-day summit brings together the many stakeholders involved in technology and policy to develop strategies at the local, regional, and global level. Join us in continuing the conversations on artificial intelligence by contributing to the development of the strongest possible RightsCon program. This year, we have received 59 proposals on AI, Automation, & Algorithmic Accountability, with many of them addressing these topics and how they will play out in the context of the 400 million people who live in the Middle East North Africa region.