Kaja Kallas: It's time to start thinking about working with robots - not fear them

Written by Julie Levy-Abegnoli on 23 November 2016 in Interviews
Interviews

Kaja Kallas talks women and technology, the value of human-robot teams, how she set tongues wagging over Parliament’s written declarations.

Kaja Kallas | Photo credit: Natalie Hill


Estonia is known as somewhat of an incubator for successful tech companies, such as Skype and TransferWise. So how has such a small country managed to be so successful in the tech sector, where other EU member states are struggling?

Kaja Kallas, a former Chair of the Estonian Parliament's economic affairs committee, joined the European Parliament in 2014, and here she has devoted a significant amount of her time to technology.

For her, the country's success is partly down to Estonia having "good people with good ideas, and companies like Skype that created an ecosystem of different start-ups, with employees launching their own businesses, so this was a good basis."


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The government, too, had a role to play. "It introduced digital identities in 2000, when no one else was thinking about these things. We created both the demand and the offer - the digital identity but also the services you can use this identity for."

EU member states, as well as the EU institutions, have had a particularly hard time figuring out how to approach the so-called 'sharing economy' - think services such as Uber and AirBnb. 

Kallas thinks that "it's complicated everywhere. The first thing is that people tend to look at the way things have been or the way regulation has been, without asking themselves why the rules were put in place in the first place. What risks or issues were they meant to cover? Has the situation changed since?"

She argues that, "Governments are not really going with the flow, because you always try and protect the existing and fight disruption." To illustrate her point, Kallas mentions the knitting machine, an invention that was initially rejected for fear of people losing their jobs. 

"If a machine has already been invented," she says, "you can't really stop it. The goal should not be to try and abolish or prevent its use, but rather to try and figure out what the risks are and what the rules should cover." But, she adds, "Sometimes you don't need rules, because things work."

While technology is widely a male-dominated sector, Kallas says that, interestingly, "In the European Parliament, the women are actually the ones dealing with tech issues."

The problem outside of policymaking is that traditionally, "girls are taught that technology is not for them, that it's for the boys, and that maths is not for girls."

She adds, "I actually read an interesting study that showed that if a girl is reminded of her gender just before taking a maths test - by simply ticking a box indicating her gender - she will perform worse." 

So what can be done to change gender perceptions in the tech industry? "We need to talk about good examples, girls need good role models."

Kallas is also a member of Parliament's working group on robotics and artificial intelligence. While it's hard to tell exactly how these new technologies will change our society, she says the medical and health sectors are sure to be impacted.

"Considering we are an ageing society and we need caretaking more than ever, there is a question as to whether robots can do that. Interestingly, the general perception is that you need to have a human touch to take care of people, but there are other aspects to this. For example, Alzheimer's patients like being taken care of by robots, because the robots don't get irritated if they ask the same question for the 100th time."

There has been a lot of concern recently surrounding robots taking over people's jobs, but this is nothing new, says Kallas. "I read a book written in 1968 about the year 2000, which said that by then no one would have to work because everything would be done by robots. This isn't really the case."

Additionally, says Kallas, "studies have shown that human-robot teams are 85 per cent more productive than either of them alone, so we shouldn't be worried about robots replacing humans, but instead start to think about working with them."

In Brussels, tech policy talk is often linked to the digital single market, one of the Commission's flagship policy priorities. But considering the vast differences that exist between EU member states, in terms of infrastructure and approaches to innovation, how likely is the EU to succeed in establishing a digital single market?

Kallas, who is Parliament's rapporteur on 'towards a digital single market act', believes that, "Of course, there are obstacles that will always be there, such as the language issue, and if you ask me whether I am optimistic about barriers being totally taken down, then my answer is no, this wouldn't be possible. 

"But we can work towards having as few barriers as possible, because we are competing globally and we want our companies to do the best they can. We have a very diverse continent, and consumers should have the right to benefit from different parts of Europe."

Other than her technology advocacy, Kallas also set tongues wagging over the summer, when she announced she would no longer be signing written declarations. A written declaration is a short text used to raise awareness on a certain topic, which if signed by more than half of MEPs, is then adopted.

These are seen in some circles as a tool for lobbyists and campaigners, not really serving any legislative purpose. Kallas signed four written declarations before calling it quits.

"When you start in the European Parliament, you don't understand how everything works, what is necessary, what is not," she explains.

"Written declarations are a total waste of everyone's time, and I think they actually widen the gap between the Parliament and citizens, because they work hard on getting signatures, and then nothing happens. It's a false objective, into which so much energy is put, with no return."

As speculation mounts around Parliament President Martin Schulz's next move and whether he will seek a third term, Kallas has a word of advice for the German. 

"I am generally of the opinion that there are 751 MEPs, and I think we would all benefit if there was more rotation in the top posts. New people bring new energy, and people shouldn't stay in one place for too long - it isn't good for the individual, nor does it benefit the organisation."

Kaja Kallas' foray into politics wasn't exactly the realisation of a lifelong ambition. "When I was deciding what to study at university," says the Estonian MEP, "I decided to choose something that neither my father, mother nor brother were involved in, because I wanted to be myself and not compared to them. My mother is a doctor, my father was a politician, and my brother is a financial consultant, so I went into law, because we didn't have any lawyers in the family."

Her father Siim, with his khaki trench coat and signature moustache, was one of the more recognisable figures in both Barroso Commission teams. But now there's a new Kallas in the Brussels-bubble's spotlight.

Having worked her way up and eventually made partner in two law firms, focusing on competition law, she says, "No one compared me to anyone, no one ever questioned my work, I was a good lawyer and I was well respected - it wasn't about having a famous relative."

Still, as she puts it, her political "calling" came knocking, "or maybe it was just in the genes." She started writing articles "on problems in Estonian society" and speaking at events, and then, "at the age of 33, I was a partner in a law firm and I was playing golf all day, and I felt like I wanted more action in my life." 

When someone suggested she become involved in politics, Kallas admits that she refused at first, but changed her mind after two years spent thinking about it.

It wasn't the easiest transition, she notes. People were quick to judge her on her family name and question her credentials, but, she points out, after having worked as a respected lawyer for 14 years, "it's not like I came out of nowhere."

Two years on from her election to the European Parliament, Kallas feels that while she is still being compared to her famous father, the comparisons have changed.

"Now, everyone understands that I'm an independent woman. I guess I do still get compared to my father, but I don't think anyone thinks I have accomplished what I have accomplished simply because of him. They can compare, but it's not like I'm riding on my family name - if you are an empty box, people can quickly see that."

 

About the author

Julie Levy-Abegnoli is a journalist for the Parliament Magazine

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