In our transforming world, digital technology has the critical mass to push our frontiers and release unlimited potential. As the wave of digital transformation soars high, improving our lives, industries and economies, we must not overlook the risks that technologies and innovations pose on the fairness and cohesion of our societies, and our rights as European citizens.

Through the construction of vast digital infrastructures, which track, monitor and collect personal data at scale, major online platforms are commodifying our data. An entire ecosystem of apps and companies controls huge data flows and ‘treats’ technology users as data suppliers via the imposition of default choice architectures. The current form of ‘computational governance’ in which we are ruled by algorithms and predictive analytics which make use and trade of individual human experiences to produce predictions of human behaviour has largely remained unregulated. We can still be in control of safe AI, trustworthy and complimentary to humans.

AI is at the core of this wave of digitisation; the power it carries must be tamed before it is unleashed in its next form of super intelligence. Manifested in both software and hardware with intelligence expressed in lines of code and powerful automation, it is already being used to solve complex problems, discover patterns or predict traffic, and make suggestions to users. AI is also tested for completely autonomous vehicles, as deep machine learning could make decisions faster, safer and better than people. Progress remains incremental, however the more we advance our understanding and the further we develop this technology, the closer we reach the point where AI leaps from narrow to general, and then super intelligence. Narrow AI is already making simple suggestions and decisions at the service of people; however, the next level of AI sophistication can completely omit humans from the process and reach levels that humans will not be capable to understand or control anymore.

As most of human activity and industry has moved online during the pandemic, and we become more dependent on an increasing amount of digital services, a series of critical questions arise: How can we build data infrastructures that recognise the role of data as a public good? Can we foresee an impartial system of data governance that could reconcile the astonishing potential of these technologies with their significant human downsides? Do we as citizens know that when we use a search engine to find something online, the engine is learning by searching us as well? Does the collection and processing of behavioural data by these technology platforms threaten to dismantle democracy and undermine the rule of law?

To tackle these questions we need to come up with novel, innovative responses, so that we make our future better than the grim outlook predicted in Black Mirror, the popular Netflix series. We have to be aware and cautious in designing the appropriate framework for AI; intelligent systems are used on the pandemic front for rapid COVID diagnosis and prognosis based on AI-enabled CT scanning analysis. AI systems are used now to upgrade our mapping systems, the management of resources, to make our mobility smarter, our agriculture more precise, with predictive maintenance and smart sensors that can contribute to a greener future, saving time, energy, and resources.

As the impact of exponential technologies grows, a new framework is needed in Europe to harness its benefits and mitigate its risks. This framework must be built on ethical principles and binding standards, which elevate people’s trust in AI and ensure that in the digital age, people co-exist with intelligent systems without fearing exclusion, manipulation, oppression or discrimination. Retaining freedom of choice in a human-centric AI that would prevent brain computer interfaces challenging the nature and future of humanity. In contrast to the trends of the Fourth Industrial Revolution towards inequalities and dehumanization, technology and innovation best practices need now to be bent back towards the service of humanity, and Europe could lead as a global rules and standards setter for the Fifth Industrial Revolution….

By Eva Kaili – Member of the European Parliament from Greece (S&D), Chair of the Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA), Member of the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy, Substitute Member of the Special Committee on Artificial Intelligence in a Digital Age.

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