The European Union proposed rules that would restrict or ban some uses of artificial intelligence within its borders, including by tech giants based in the US and China.
The rules are the most significant international effort to regulate AI to date, covering facial recognition, autonomous driving, and the algorithms that drive online advertising, automated hiring, and credit scoring. The proposed rules could help shape global norms and regulations around a promising but contentious technology.
“There’s a very important message globally, that certain applications of AI are not permissible in a society founded on democracy, rule of law, fundamental rights,” says
Daniel Leufer, Europe policy analyst with Access Now, a European digital rights nonprofit. Leufer says the proposed rules are vague, but represent a significant step towards checking potentially harmful uses of the technology.
The debate is likely to be watched closely abroad. The rules would apply to any company selling products or services in the EU.
Other advocates say there are too many loopholes in the EU proposals to protect citizens from many misuses of AI. “The fact that there are some sort of prohibitions is positive,” says Ella Jakubowska, policy and campaigns officer at European Digital Rights (EDRi) based in Brussels. But she says certain provisions would allow companies and government authorities to keep using AI in dubious ways.
The proposed regulations suggest, for example, prohibiting “high risk” applications of AI including law enforcement use of AI for facial recognition—but only when the technology is used to spot people in real time in public spaces. This provision also suggests potential exceptions when police are investigating a crime that could carry a sentence of at least three years.
So Jakubowska notes that the technology could still be used retrospectively in schools, businesses, or shopping malls, and in a range of police inquiries. “There’s a lot that doesn’t go anywhere near far enough when it comes to fundamental digital rights,” she says. “We wanted them to take a bolder stance.”
Facial recognition, which has become far more effective due to recent advances in AI, is highly contentious. It is widely used in China and by many law enforcement officers in the US, via commercial tools such as Clearview AI; some US cities have banned police from using the technology in response to public outcry.
The proposed EU rules would also prohibit “AI-based social scoring for general purposes done by public authorities,” as well as AI systems that target “specific vulnerable groups” in ways that would “materially distort their behavior” to cause “psychological or physical harm.” That could potentially restrict use of AI for credit scoring, hiring, or some forms of surveillance advertising, for example if an algorithm placed ads for betting sites in front of people with a gambling addiction.
The EU regulations would require companies using AI for high-risk applications to provide risk assessments to regulators that demonstrate their safety. Those that fail to comply with the rules could be fined up to 6 percent of global sales.
The proposed rules would require companies to inform users when try to use AI to detect people’s emotion, or to classify people according to biometric features such as sex, age, race, or sexual orientation or political orientation—applications that are also technically dubious.
Leufer, the digital rights analyst, says rules could discourage certain areas of investment, shaping the course that the AI industry takes in the EU and elsewhere. “There’s a narrative that there’s an AI race on, and that’s nonsense,” Leufer says. “We should not compete with China for forms of artificial intelligence that enable mass surveillance.”
A draft version of the regulations, created in January, was leaked last week. The final version contains notable changes, for example removing a section that would prohibit high-risk AI systems that might cause people to “behave, form an opinion, or take a decision to their detriment that they would not have taken otherwise”.