EU passes landmark AI Act to rein in high-risk tech

14 Jun 2023

Image: ©

The Act will categorise the applications of AI technology based on risk and prohibit certain uses like social scoring, in a bid to bring a ‘new age of scrutiny’ to the sector.

EU lawmakers have voted in favour of the AI Act, a long-awaited batch of rules to prohibit dangerous technology and monitor the application of artificial intelligence.

The European Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of the act today (14 June), despite earlier concerns raised about how the act will tackle topics like biometric surveillance. The AI Act received 499 votes in favour, 28 votes against and 93 abstentions.

As far back as 2021, the AI Act has been developed by the EU to rein in ‘high-risk’ AI activities and protect the rights of citizens. The rules will make certain AI technology prohibited and add others to a high-risk list, forcing certain obligations on the tech’s creators.

Some high-risk systems include using AI to influence voters, or in recommendation systems on social media platforms.

The act will also bring in a uniform definition for AI that will be relatively neutral, so it can be applied to the tech as it evolves over time.

After the vote, EU Parliament President Roberta Metsola said anytime technology advances, it must go “hand in hand with our democratic values”.

“We must reconsider how we legislate and think in the face of unlimited access to artificial intelligence because a new age of scrutiny has begun,” Metsola said.

Negotiations are taking place today with the European Council to decide what the act will look like in its final form. Dr Ventsislav Ivanov, an AI expert and lecturer at Oxford Business College, said taming this sector will not be easy, as taking on global tech companies will be “akin to Hercules battling the seven-headed hydra”.

“The AI Act that passed today is not perfect, but the EU has at least laid some ground rules for ChatGPT and created an EU AI Office to oversee future regulations,” Ivanov said. “This is not the end of this discussion, but it’s one small step in the right direction for lawmakers.”

Outlawed technology

As the rules follow a risk-based approach, the EU said technology that poses an unacceptable risk to people’s safety is prohibited. This type of technology includes social scoring, a method of classifying people based on their social behaviour, which is said to be used in other countries like China.

Other technology that is being prohibited is the use of real-time, remote biometric identification systems in publicly accessible spaces. The act will also outlaw biometric categorisation systems that use sensitive characteristics, such as a person’s gender, race, religion or political orientation.

In recent weeks, some EU lawmakers raised concerns about the act allowing the use of biometric surveillance for specific use cases, so it is unclear if the act has outlawed biometric identification entirely.

Emotion recognition systems for law enforcement, workplaces, educational institutions and border management is also being outlawed. This technology has been criticised by UK watchdogs in the past for being “immature”.

The act will also prohibit the “untargeted scraping of facial images”, either from the internet or CCTV footage, for the purpose of creating facial recognition databases. It is unclear how this will be enforced when it comes to companies that operate outside of the EU, such as Clearview AI.

Foundation models

The AI Act was reportedly delayed earlier this year due to the rise of foundational models like OpenAI’s ChatGPT, which caused a rapid rush in the use of AI technology.

The new rules will force providers of these models to assess and mitigate possible risks surrounding their tech and register their models in an EU database, before they can be released on the EU market.

“While Big Tech companies are sounding the alarm over their own creations, Europe has gone ahead and proposed a concrete response to the risks AI is starting to pose,” said co-rapporteur Brando Benifei MEP. “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.”

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic