Artificial intelligence, usually thought of as substituting human endeavour, should be conceived as a way of enhancing it for all.
We are witnessing another industrial revolution—a digital one. Rapidly evolving technology, superfast connections such as 5G, the massive amount of data this connectivity generates and artificial intelligence will reshape the lives and societies we know today.
Globally, the total amount of data is doubling every 18 months. In other words, in 2019 we were using only 1 per cent of the data which will be in use by 2030. This creates yet unimaginable possibilities for innovations, new business models and services.
Yet who will this trend benefit? Will the pool of data be used to build a human-centric digital society or could it end up concentrated in the hands of a few global actors, benefiting only the already wealthy?
The digital revolution should neither leave anybody behind nor lead to a ‘race to the bottom’ with regard to labour and social standards. Everybody must be included. We must not stifle innovation but data usage cannot be an unregulated vacuum. We must empower citizens to have better control over their data and use data as a tool to benefit people and societies as a whole. As legislators, it is our task to establish a regulatory framework that promote an inclusive, human-centric data economy in Europe.
AI has been a clear priority for the current European Commission from day one. But it was the commissioner for the internal market, Thierry Breton, who really put the emphasis on data. Data and AI go together: if we do not have data ‘flowing’ between different actors, whether public or private, and across borders, Europe cannot be number one in the world in reaping the benefits of digitalisation or AI.
On the European Parliament’s own-initiative report on data strategy—its answer to the commission communication in February—I have the honour to act as the industry committee’s rapporteur. The aim is to find a parliament position before the commission publishes concrete legislative proposals, such as the envisaged enabling legislative framework for the governance of common European data spaces, data act and implementing act on high-value data sets. From the standpoint of European citizens, the focus is clear: how to harness the potential of data to enable new services, business opportunities and jobs, while ensuring the digital transformation doesn’t leave behind common European values?
At the same time, it is important to understand that the digital market is truly a global one. I have an opportunity to follow also the global digital debate from the international-trade perspective as a standing rapporteur on World Trade Organization e-commerce negotiations in the European Parliament’s international trade committee. The EU must be an active global player and influence the development of the digital world based on its values—not the other way around. For example, we must put the focus on European competition policy: Europeans must define the rules, values and level playing field of the market; we should not be satisfied only with what others dictate.
Building a human-centric data economy and human-centric artificial intelligence starts from the user. First, we need trust. We need to demystify the data economy and AI: people tend to avoid, resist or even fear developments they do not fully understand.
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Education plays a crucial role in shaping this understanding and in making digitalisation inclusive. Although better services—such as services used remotely—make life easier also outside cities, the benefits of digitalisation have so far mostly accrued to an educated fragment of citizens in urban metropoles and one of the biggest obstacles to the digital shift is lack of awareness of new possibilities and skills.
We need action throughout Europe, all the way down to the local level, to give our citizens the tools to understand rapid technological change—as well as investing in new engineers, software developers and visionaries via our education systems, reskilling and lifelong learning. How can employees and small and medium enterprises be innovative, if they do not have the knowledge?
An exemplary initiative is a Finnish-developed, free online course, ‘Elements of AI’. This started as a course for students in the University of Helsinki but its wider potential was soon realised and the paradigm changed: the new aim of the university and its partner company was to educate 1 per cent of Finnish citizens in the basics of AI. The course boomed and the goal was reached in no time among Finland’s 5.5 million population.
Finland held the presidency of the Council of the EU during the second half of 2019. In a departure from tradition, it did not give any gifts during the presidency, expect one—extending the goal to offer basic knowledge of AI to 1 per cent of all European citizens. In co-operation with the commission, the course will soon be available in all official European Union languages.
So far, more than 430,000 people from over 160 countries have taken the course. It is not designed only for professionals or digital ‘nerds’ but for common people: the only requirement is an internet connection and a will to learn. The course is digital education and lifelong learning par excellence. It’s a concrete and easy-to-use initiative which really has a multi-functional purpose—you can use it just to learn the basics of AI on your own from your bed in the evening, or take the course as a part of the education system in school, university or work. It is already part of the curriculum in almost every Finnish university and some employers in Finland have advised their employees to take it—just to keep up with the evolving world.
Another key issue is gender balance. AI learns from real-life data and there is a tangible risk that it will adopt existing biases and even make them more apparent. This is why the coders and users of AI-based technology need to be diverse. Yet how long have we talked about the small number of women in the technology industry? I graduated as an engineer in the 1990s and that topic is certainly not new.
Concrete possibilities for equal participation make the world more balanced. In the Nordic countries, the majority of participants on the ‘Elements of AI’ course are female and in the rest of the world the proportion exceeds 40 per cent—more than three times as high as the average ratio of women working in the technology sector. After the course had been running in Finland for a while, the number of women applying to study computer science in the University of Helsinki increased by 80 per cent.
Let’s be inspired by this and relentlessly continue our work, from the grass roots to the global level, to ensure we build fair, equal and progressive digital societies.
Miapetra Kumpula-Natri is a member of the European Parliament, representing Finland and the Socialists and Democrats group, and of its Committee on Industry, Research and Energy. For 11 years, she was a member of the Finnish parliament.