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EU AI act passes a significant milestone

The European Union’s AI Act will ban the use of artificial intelligence to profile people based on race or gender and prohibit use of biometric identification in public spaces

The European Union’s Artificial Intelligence Act has passed a major milestone following a plenary vote on the negotiating position the European Parliament takes with member states.

After the vote, co-rapporteur Dragos Tudorache (Renew, Romania) said: “The AI Act will set the tone worldwide in the development and governance of artificial intelligence, ensuring that this technology, set to radically transform our societies through the massive benefits it can offer, evolves and is used in accordance with the European values of democracy, fundamental rights and the rule of law.”

The European Union (EU) plans to curb the way big tech firms are using artificial intelligence (AI). “We want AI’s positive potential for creativity and productivity to be harnessed, but we will also fight to protect our position and counter dangers to our democracies and freedoms during the negotiations with council,” said co-rapporteur Brando Benifei (S&D, Italy).

The AI Act prohibits real-time and post-remote biometric identification systems in publicly accessible spaces, along with biometric categorisation systems that use sensitive characteristics such as gender, race, ethnicity, citizenship status, religion and political orientation.

Predictive policing systems, which use profiling, location or past criminal behaviour, are also banned, as is the use of emotion recognition systems in law enforcement, border management, the workplace and educational institutions. Untargeted scraping of facial images from the internet or CCTV footage to create facial recognition databases, which violates human rights and privacy rights, are also prohibited.

Margrethe Vestager, who leads the EU’s strategy on AI, believes there needs to be a balance between freedom and safety. But there also needs to be a balance between innovation and ensuring people’s fundamental rights are being protected.

Speaking after the vote, she said: “I think that you have all heard, and probably agree, that AI is too important not to regulate. It’s too important to be badly regulated. A good regulation that we all agree on as soon as possible must be a common objective – and we need sound enforcement. We need these obligations that this law gives us to be a real thing on the ground for people to be safe.”

“AI is too important not to regulate. It’s too important to be badly regulated. A good regulation that we all agree on as soon as possible must be a common objective”
Margrethe Vestager, EU’s strategy on AI lead

Ventsislav Ivanov, AI expert and lecturer at Oxford Business College, said: “Taking on the global tech companies and other interested parties will be akin to Hercules battling the seven-headed hydra. To solve the problem, politicians must first identify the threat, and with such a rapidly evolving technology, this is like trying to nail jelly to the wall.”

Tim Wright, tech and AI regulation partner at UK law firm Fladgate, urged businesses planning to build AI systems to understand the implication of the proposed regulation.

“Once the AI Act is finalised, the EU will start work on harmonised standards under the act, which will apply across the EU,” he said. “Companies should not leave their planning, preparation and implementation too late. Just as with GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation], non-compliance with the AI Act will come at a significant cost.”

While AI promises many societal benefits, research has shown how easily it can be misused or exploited nefariously. For instance, research from Amnesty International has found that cameras made by a Dutch company called TKH Security are used in public spaces in occupied East Jerusalem. Similar investigations have revealed that companies based in France, Sweden and the Netherlands sold digital surveillance systems, such as facial recognition technology and network cameras, to key players of the Chinese mass surveillance apparatus.

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