As artificial intelligence rises, lawmakers try to catch up
PARIS, Dec 10 — From “intelligent” vacuum cleaners and driverless cars to advanced techniques to diagnose diseases, artificial intelligence has dug into every arena of modern life.
Its promoters reckon it will revolutionize human experience, but critics stress the technology risks putting machines in charge of life-changing decisions.
Regulators in Europe and North America are worried.
The European Union is likely to pass legislation next year – the AI Act – aimed at reining in the age of the algorithm.
The United States recently published a blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights and Canada is also considering legislation.
China’s use of biometric data, facial recognition and other technology to build a powerful control system has been a major factor in the debates.
Gry Hasselbalch, a Danish academic who advises the EU on the controversial technology, argued that the West also risks creating “totalitarian infrastructure”.
“I see it as a big threat, regardless of the benefits,” she told AFP.
But before regulators can act, they face the daunting task of defining what AI actually is.
Suresh Venkatasubramanian of Brown University, who co-authored the AI Bill of Rights, said trying to define AI is “a mug’s game”.
Any technology that affects people’s rights should be within the scope of the bill, he tweeted.
The 27-nation EU takes the more circuitous route to define the vast field.
His draft law lists the kinds of approaches defined as AI, and it includes almost any computer system that involves automation.
The problem stems from the changing use of the term AI.
For decades, it described efforts to create machines that simulated human thought.
But funding largely dried up for this research — known as symbolic AI — in the early 2000s.
The rise of the Silicon Valley titans saw AI reborn as a catch-all label for their number-crunching programs and the algorithms they generated.
This automation allowed them to target users with ads and content, helping them earn hundreds of billions of dollars.
“AI was a way for them to make more use of this surveillance data and to disguise what was going on,” said Meredith Whittaker, a former Google worker who co-founded New York University’s AI Now Institute. told AFP.
The EU and the US therefore both concluded that any definition of AI should be as broad as possible.
But from that point on, the two Western powerhouses largely went their separate ways.
The EU’s draft law on AI spans more than 100 pages.
Among his most notable proposals is the blanket ban on certain “high-risk” technologies — the kind of biometric surveillance tools used in China.
It also drastically limits the use of AI tools by migration officials, police and judges.
Hasselbach said some technologies were “simply too challenging for fundamental rights”.
The AI Bill of Rights, on the other hand, is a short set of principles couched in aspirational language, with admonitions such as “you must be protected from unsafe or inefficient systems”.
The bill was issued by the White House and relies on existing legislation.
Experts reckon no dedicated AI legislation is likely in the United States until 2024 at the earliest because Congress is deadlocked.
Opinions differ on the merits of each approach.
“We desperately need regulation,” New York University’s Gary Marcus told AFP.
He points out that “big language models” – the AI behind chatbots, translation tools, predictive text software and much more – can be used to generate harmful disinformation.
Whittaker questioned the value of laws aimed at tackling AI rather than the “surveillance business models” that underpin it.
“If you don’t address it at a fundamental level, I think you’re putting a band-aid over a flesh wound,” she said.
But other experts broadly welcomed the US approach.
AI has been a better target for regulators than the more abstract concept of privacy, said Sean McGregor, a researcher who profiles technology failures for the AI incident database.
But he said there could be a risk of over-regulation.
“The authorities that exist can regulate AI,” he told AFP, pointing to the likes of the US Federal Trade Commission and the housing regulator HUD.
But where experts generally agree is the need to remove the hype and mystique surrounding AI technology.
“It’s not magic,” McGregor said, comparing AI to a highly sophisticated Excel spreadsheet. — ETX Studio