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Prioritising ethical principles in the governance of disruptive technologies

Written by Andrés García Higuera and Mihalis Kritikos (STOA) with Nuala Polo and Corinna Pannofino (Trilateral Research)

Prioritising ethical principles in the governance of disruptive technologies

The European Parliament’s Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA) partnered with three EU-funded Horizon 2020 projects – SHERPA, SIENNA and PANELFIT – representing a €10 million investment in research by the European Union, to host the online workshop, ‘Policy options for the ethical governance of disruptive technologies‘. This event took place on 23 March 2021.

In view of the (now published) legislative proposal on artificial intelligence (AI), the workshop focused on identifying the main ethical challenges associated with the development of disruptive technologies and the best practices for mitigating the related risks. It also aimed at building on these findings to ensure that ethical principles and societal values are prioritised in the design and development of future technologies.

In her opening remarks, Susana Solís Pérez MEP (Renew, Spain) and Lead STOA Panel Member for this event, emphasised the need for Europe to take the lead in the creation of a legal framework enabling the development of a responsible innovation ecosystem in the field of AI. Despina Spanou, Head of Office of the European Commission Vice-President for Promoting our European Way of Life Margaritis Schinas, then delivered an insightful policy keynote speech. She emphasised the importance of AI in several areas and the need for high standards of protection of fundamental rights, to ensure the responsible development, deployment and use of these technologies to protect privacy and promote security. She further presented the Commission’s upcoming legislative and policy plans in the domain of AI, which put forward a risk-based, technology-neutral, holistic approach consistent with the European way of life.

The first panel discussion was based on the results of the SHERPA project, ‘Ethical, social and legal challenges of AI – Open questions and outstanding challenges’. This panel featured Members of the European Parliament, academics, technology developers and policy-makers, who engaged in a lively discussion and debate on best practices for harnessing the benefits of AI in order to improve citizens’ lives, while mitigating potential ethical, social and legal risks. It was agreed that ethical aspects of AI should not be seen as an obstacle but as a matter of ongoing critical reflection that is particularly important for protecting vulnerable people and children when using AI systems. The panellists emphasised that AI could help us fight climate change and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, and stressed the need to construct AI ecosystems with governance structures that provide incentives for ethical uses of AI.

The second panel was based on the results of the PANELFIT project, ‘Mitigation options – What can be done to identify and address current and future challenges of emerging technologies?’. This panel also featured Members, privacy engineers, academics and developers, in discussion on how to better understand and address the ethical implications of new and emerging technologies in the early stages of design and development, to minimise potential negative impacts on society. Discussion centred on the importance of EU-wide policy and standards to achieve a dynamic and enforceable approach to address systemic risks and incorporate ethics in the design of data-driven technologies. It was agreed that certification schemes and self-regulation are not sufficient to address algorithmic bias and restore transparency and accountability.

These interactive discussions were followed by a keynote speech delivered by Yoshua Bengio of the University of Montreal and one of the world’s leading experts in AI. He considered ways for governments to better incentivise technology development and AI innovation in a way that promotes long-term benefits for society, for example, open science, data sharing and use of rewards based on delayed (technological) outcomes, rather than simply grants. His speech focused on the need to promote and facilitate the sharing of knowledge and data for the public good, which in effect could strengthen the social dimension of AI. His presentation is available here.

Yoshua Bengio’s keynote was followed by the event’s final panel, based on the results of the SIENNA project, ‘Beyond AI – Ethics and human rights implications of emerging technologies’. In addition to Members, this panel featured AI ethicists, and academics, who considered best practices for building ethical and legal regulatory frameworks, to ensure the ethical governance of new and emerging technologies. The discussion focused on the importance of protecting democratic values and fundamental rights, to ensure that technology works for the collective good and the whole of society. All panellists agreed on the need to strengthen multidisciplinary input in the design and deployment of AI, including the shaping of definitions in the domain of AI.

The final panel was followed by a roundtable discussion on policy options from an international perspective. The discussion focused on the various AI ethics initiatives adopted by international organisations and considered ways to enhance global efforts in standards development in strategic emerging technology fields, and strengthen the normative value of ethics and the role of the EU as an ethics trailblazer.

Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Culture, Education and Youth, and Eva Kailli (S&D, Greece) and STOA Chair brought the event to a close, with Eva Kaili reiterating the importance of strengthening a harmonised EU-wide approach to the design and development of future and emerging technologies prioritising ethical and social values to enrich and improve society. In her view, the discussions had highlighted the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration and working with end-users to develop solutions that protect EU values, democracy and fundamental rights.

The event, moderated by BBC journalist Vivienne Parry, featured Q&A sessions with members of the audience, and opened up a critical discussion on how we can make use of AI and big data for public good. A recording of the event is available here.

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About Scientific Foresight (STOA)

The Scientific Foresight Unit (STOA) carries out interdisciplinary research and provides strategic advice in the field of science and technology options assessment and scientific foresight. It undertakes in-depth studies and organises workshops on developments in these fields, and it hosts the European Science-Media Hub (ESMH), a platform to promote networking, training and knowledge sharing between the EP, the scientific community and the media. All this work is carried out under the guidance of the Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA), composed of 27 MEPs nominated by 11 EP Committees. The STOA Panel forms an integral part of the structure of the EP.

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