EU outlines ambitious AI regulations focused on risky uses

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European Commissioner for Europe fit for the Digital Age Margrethe Vestager speaks during a media conference on an EU approach to artificial intelligence, following a weekly meeting of EU Commissioners, at EU headquarters in Brussels, Wednesday, April 21, 2021. (Olivier Hoslet, Pool via AP)

LONDON – Risky uses of artificial intelligence that threaten people’s safety or rights such as live facial scanning should be banned or tightly controlled, European Union officials said Wednesday as they outlined an ambitious package of proposed regulations to rein in the rapidly expanding technology.

The draft regulations from the EU's executive commission include rules for applications deemed high risk such as AI systems to filter out school, job or loan applicants. They would also ban artificial intelligence outright in a few cases considered too risky, such as government “social scoring” systems that judge people based on their behavior.

The proposals are the 27-nation bloc’s latest move to maintain its role as the world’s standard-bearer for technology regulation, as it tries to keep up with the world's two big tech superpowers, the U.S. and China. EU officials say they are taking a four-level “risk-based approach” that seeks to balance important rights such as privacy against the need to encourage innovation.

“With these landmark rules, the EU is spearheading the development of new global norms to make sure AI can be trusted,” Margrethe Vestager, the European Commission’s executive vice president for the digital age, said in a statement. “By setting the standards, we can pave the way for to ethical technology worldwide and ensure that the EU remains competitive along the way.”

To be sure, the draft rules have a long way to go before they take effect. They need to be reviewed by the European Parliament and the European Council and could be amended in a process that could take several years, though officials declined to give a specific timeframe.

Previous EU tech regulation efforts have been far reaching and influential, earning it a reputation as a pioneer. Vestager, also the bloc's competition chief, filed aggressive antitrust challenges against Silicon Valley giants like Google years before such action became fashionable. The EU was also early to the data privacy battle with stringent rules known as General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, that became the de facto global standard.

However, results have been mixed: Google still retains its online dominance and EU privacy cases against global tech companies are backed up. Officials are also working on updating the EU's digital rulebook to protect internet users from harmful material or rogue traders.

Under the AI proposals, unacceptable uses would also include manipulating behavior, exploiting children's vulnerabilities or using subliminal techniques.