Eurobots: Regulation rules in the European AI scene

The following is a guest post by Erin Green, PhD, a Brussels-based AI ethics and public engagement specialist. For more on the European scene, check out my recent interview with Hill + Knowlton Strategies “Creating Ethical Rules for AI.”


When it comes to the global AI stage, China and the US consistently grab headlines as their so-called arms race heats up, while countries like Japan and South Korea lead the way in innovation and social receptivity. Europe, though, is taking a slightly different approach – partly by choice, partly by design.

The 28 countries (Brexit pending) that make up the economic and political bloc of the European Union each have a stake in the AI game. Bigger, richer players like the UK (pledging 1000 places for PhDs in AI) and Germany (€3 billion invested in the coming years) are sinking eye-widening resources into keeping up with the proverbial Joneses. Smaller nations, like Malta and its not-quite 500,000 people, are turning to foreign investment and partnerships to guarantee a spot in the major leagues.

Somewhat independent of these interests, the EU itself is trying to carve out space in terms of regulatory prowess and in bringing coherence to a rather chaotic European AI scene. Think this is a bureaucratic exercise with not much reach or consequence beyond the Berlaymont? Just remember all those GDPR emails that clogged up your inbox sometime around May 25, 2018. The EU has real regulatory reach.

So, are you ready to break into the Brussels bubble? Here are four ways to get acquainted with the European AI scene:

One EU, 28 Perspectives

The power of the EU is held in check by the national interests of its member states. These, naturally, are often competing among each other and represent varying enthusiasm for European integration. To get a handle on what’s at stake for the union, you also have to know what’s at stake for its members.

There’s not a better starting place than the excellent EuropeanAI Newsletter compiled by the excellent Charlotte Stix (follow her!). She takes “deep dives” into European AI activities with insight that only someone who truly gets how the EU works can deliver. Things I’ve learned from recent editions include that Qatar’s national AI strategy will use the GDPR as inspiration and that Google is investing billions into European data centres. Definitely a must read.

Experts of the Highest Level

The EU excels at launching impressive sounding projects, the High Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence included. Created in mid-2018, the group brings together heavy hitters from academics, industry, and politics—think Oxford, Airbus, and Skype. So far, they’ve delivered guidelines and policy recommendations, and are poised to play a role as the newly formed Commission moves towards tabling AI legislation. While the European Commission (the executive branch of the EU) has done an okay job of putting together a diverse group, it isn’t exactly a radical bunch. It tends to be a bit of a privileged conversation carried out by privileged people. A few more explicitly queer, feminist, Indigenous, grassroots, and disabled perspectives would go a long way in making sure that society as a whole is well represented in AI policy at the European level.

T-minus 100 days

I, for one, don’t like to write checks I cannot cash. It seems, however, that newly installed European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen is a far more courageous woman. Among pillar promises for her first 100 days in office is the introduction of GDPR-like legislation for artificial intelligence. Bold. Move.

While my view is that carefully prepared legislation could be a boon for the European AI scene, I question whether three months is enough time to tackle this and overcome tensions between commissioners.

Responsibility for the legislation falls to Dane Margreth Vestager, an avowed AI optimist. As Politico reports, she’ll likely face pushback from others including Thierry Breton—an EU commissioner with a big tech firm background—who has publicly expressed pretty conventional anti-regulation sentiments. It’ll be interesting to follow these developments as the clock runs down.


Finally, let’s be honest, a lot of what the EU will do with AI comes down to money. The EU budget comes in at around €165 billion ($180 billion USD) for 2019. It’s massive. And massively complicated to use it in a way that jives with the member states, who often “jealously guard” (as one EU official put it) things like national defence and security.

To help things along, the EU has what it calls a Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), which sets the tone and direction of its budgets for periods of about seven years. The current MFF has been the subject of more than a little controversy for militarizing the budget of the organization designed to bring lasting peace to the European continent.

Proposals for the next MFF have also included debate about the funding of military technologies, and how to restrict investment in lethal autonomous weapons. Though watching EU budget negotiations requires parsing a good amount of jargon—and reading a load of Politico—it’s well worth it if you really want to gaze into the EU AI crystal ball.

Still reading? Great! Here are a few more things to help you get a lay of the European land and if you’re ever in Brussels, coffee’s on me! 

AI Talent in the European Labour Market (LinkedIn)

European Commission news about AI


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