Artificial intelligence and genetics: a key role for the EU … if only it gets its act together

Every month, TEPSA Secretary-General Jim Cloos writes a newsletter editorial on the news of the day, the future of Europe, and the work of the TEPSA network. To receive every upcoming editorial direct to your inbox, SUBSCRIBE to the TEPSA Newsletter here.

I was prompted to write today’s editorial after reading two fascinating books: Stuart Russell’s Human compatible artificial intelligence and the problem of control and Walter Isaacson’s The Code breaker on the genetics revolution, which may well be the next exponential scientific advancement. AI and genetics can and indeed will change the future of the world and mankind. One cannot but marvel at the ingenuity of humans and the stunning advances of science. These new fields open extraordinary avenues for improving life and societies. But they also conjure up the nightmare of a de-humanized world if things go wrong. As Russel puts it: “What if we succeed? […] Success would be the biggest event in human history…and perhaps the last event in human history.”

The EU can and must play a major role in shaping the debate about future developments in these fields. I will look at this from two angles. The first is about framing the social, regulatory and moral issues. Here the EU is ideally placed. The second concerns scientific research and discovery, and the development of concrete tools, where the EU is lagging behind. This is problematic, not just because it will put us on the losing side in terms of economic power and prosperity, but also because it will weaken our claim to regulate these matters.

Both authors raise the many moral and ethical questions that the advances in the two fields ask of us. Should we allow everything that is technically feasible or do we need to establish red lines to avoid de-humanization? Which ones? When should we encourage AI and genetic engineering and when should we block its use? And most importantly: who is to decide about this in the last resort. Here we have two very different models. The Chinese one is totally State-driven. The Chinese authorities (and the party) dictate what is licit and what is not. And we see a tendency in China to use (or misuse) advances in AI, and maybe one day genetics, to increase its control over the population. America is at the other end of the spectrum. The traditional American bias towards free enterprise and the pursuit of profit above everything else tilts the balance in the direction of leaving a lot of space to companies and individual players to push the boundaries. If you look at the IT revolution, a group of extremely powerful companies, Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft (GAFAM), have set the standards and in many ways escape control by the public authorities. Most Europeans, and indeed many Americans, do not want to have the Zuckerbergs or Musks of this world decide on the future of mankind.

This is where Europe can and should come in. The EU is well placed to find a balanced way of reconciling innovative dynamism and freedom of research with the necessary democratic and societal controls. It can be argued that had the EU been more prominent in developing the digital revolution, the debate on the gratuity or not of the net could have gone differently. Gratuity won the day, but it has had a big price tag; it has led to an explosion of publicity and the misuse of personal data on a grand scale, with sometimes very perverse effects, including criminal misuse of data as seen in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. There clearly is a need for more and better regulation of the new emerging and game-changing technologies. And there is no entity better placed to set standards than the EU, which is a regulatory superpower. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was a trail blazer in many ways, and has been recognized as such across the world, including in the USA. The EU is now working on an even more ambitious objective, i.e. an AI Act. Both the EP and the Council have managed to agree on a mandate for their negotiators to engage into a so-called trilogue to hammer out a deal. This would be the first ever comprehensive legislation in the field of AI, and is thus hugely important.

There is a ‘but’, however. Europe will only succeed in this endeavour if it is itself a key player in the research on and development of AI and genetics applications. It cannot just let others create the technologies and then try to defensively limit their uses. In the field of data, we risk having the protection, while the Americans and the Chinese will have the use of the data. In 1994, the Delors Commission proposed a White Paper calling for information motorways (‘autoroutes de l’information’). That was a wise call, and we did indeed build those motorways. Unfortunately, we then handed the keys to driving their cars on the motorways to the American GAFAM, while our fragmented European players continue using national highways and departmental roads. The reasons for this are three-fold:

  • an ideological bias focusing almost exclusively on narrowly defined competition considerations by the Commission; all too often, the Commission looks at the EU market only, and sometimes even national markets, rather than factoring in the global markets;
  • a breath-taking pusillanimity on the part of our Member States, defending their domestic ‘prés carrés’ rather than using the Single Market to create European-wide platforms and players;
  • a naïve belief that we can settle all the issues by leading the way in terms of (mostly defensive) regulation; the latter is indeed a great thing, but if we only regulate ex post what the powerful American and Chinese entities throw at us, we will always be behind the curve and run after events.

European researchers play an important role in emerging technologies, but the main drivers and the mass of research and finance, are in the US, and increasingly China. If Europe does not take a more active part, it will be too late in a few years to undo possible negative developments: once the genie is out of the bottle, it is difficult to put it back in again. This is a problem for our autonomy, our prosperity, our standing in the world and in fact our capacity to regulate efficiently. We can learn a lot from America in how to foster and promote innovation. We have the brains, the ability and the technology, but we seem to be lacking the drive and dynamism, the cross fertilization, the risk capital, and the courage to take risks that characterize the American society. The time has come to have a fresh look at how to develop a coherent policy and a framework allowing for innovation to happen and thrive.

The upcoming EP elections and the new institutional cycle that starts in 2024 provide an excellent opportunity to raise issues like the future of AI and genetics. This would be far more useful and productive than to spend a lot of energy on false good ideas like the Spitzenkandidaten process to designate the new Commission President. One of the EU’s major assets is to have in the shape of the Commission an independent institution that is democratically legitimized (chosen by the Council and the EP) and has the luxury to work with a long term perspective. It would be folly to alter the nature of the Commission by having it plunge headlong into party politics and short termism.

Our lack of a comprehensive vision has cost us dearly and will cost even more in the future. It is high time to gets serious in building our strategic autonomy in such vital fields as AI and genetics. This should be central to the next Strategic Agenda the European Council will adopt in June 2024. We need a strong message, a vision and a call for means, structures and governance. Europe has the capacity to react. Will it have the political will to do so?

Jim Cloos, TEPSA Secretary-General