How to harness AI for the benefit of our health and environment

AI can have transformative effects on healthcare and the environment, but we need to be smart about it, writes Susana Solís Pérez
Photo credit: Joerg Boethling | Alamy Stock Photo

By Susana Solís

Susana Solís Pérez (ES, RE) is a rapporteur for the opinion of the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI Committee) on the Artificial Intelligence Act

06 Apr 2022

Can software help us prevent cancer, using data from millions of patients? Do algorithms have a detrimental or beneficial impact on our environment? After long discussions, the European Parliament is beginning to make a move on the Artificial Intelligence Act (AI Act) to address some of these questions.

We have now moved beyond the discussion on the importance of AI. This technology isn’t something we consider for the future anymore but is instead a reality that has an impact on our everyday lives and in every economic sector. The list of revolutionary AI applications continues to grow at breakneck speed, from biotechnology and healthcare to climate change adaptation and smart farming, from sustainable transport to critical infrastructure.
Yet, for decades, AI technology has been advancing at the speed of light while legislation has been static on the matter. That is, until now. 

We must give AI the space it needs to develop to its full potential and to contribute to our societies

I am extremely lucky to have been appointed as the ENVI rapporteur of the AI Act. It is a great responsibility because it is the first to have an opinion on the matter. We are working hard to deliver a horizontal legislation that guarantees a high level of legal certainty, protects our societies and ensures respect for our European values. This is the only way for citizens and businesses to fully trust the technologies they use. 

We must give AI the space it needs to develop to its full potential and to contribute to our societies. Let’s face the ugly truth: the EU is lagging behind in the world’s tech race. It’s fundamental that we smooth the way for SMEs and entrepreneurs to innovate, through regulatory sandboxes and a reduction of bureaucracy. 

However, we cannot give AI full rein. “Innovation through regulation” is the principle guiding me while drafting the ENVI opinion on the AI Act.

We have to establish common rules to provide AI with a cross-cutting approach. We must acknowledge the monumental opportunity it represents to all sectors in society. And by doing so, the EU has a chance to lead the way and to set the standards of AI worldwide, as it has already done with data protection through the GDPR. 

We can become world leaders in niche sectors such as neurorights. While terms like “brain data” and “neurochips” may sound like something taken from a sci-fi movie, they are gradually becoming our reality. The tech giants have been announcing their developments in the field, such as the ability to decode thoughts in brain activity and process them in computers, or to monitor neuroactivity through brain microchips. We cannot be caught off guard. EU legislation must get in the game and set the rules for all players. 

But if we regard AI as an ally – and not a foe – where can it get us regarding the EU’s overall priorities? The truth is that AI can be pivotal in the fight against climate change and in achieving the goals set by the Green Deal. In fact, it has the potential of reducing worldwide greenhouse emissions by four per cent by 2030, according to PwC UK.

But if we regard AI as an ally – and not a foe – where can it get us regarding the EU’s overall priorities? The truth is that AI can be pivotal in the fight against climate change and in achieving the goals set by the Green Deal

It will lead the way in reaching climate neutrality through monitoring the environment, designing smarter and greener cities, reducing energy consumption, developing more efficient transportation and making our waste management more intelligent. Even though AI algorithms can have negative consequences for the environment through their energy consumption, they are still capable of reducing 10 times more greenhouse gas emissions than their own footprint. 

I am determined to ensure that the deployment of AI only works for our benefit by demanding that the protection of the environment is considered a high-risk factor in our legislation.

Healthcare is another of the EU’s priorities that will be transformed by AI. We have an unprecedented opportunity to make use of emerging technologies to save millions of lives. From combating pandemics to enhancing research and diagnosis, from developing new medical devices and treatments to increasing the public authorities’ decision-making capabilities in matters of public health – the benefits are countless. 

However, wherever human lives are at stake there is a need to keep a sharp lookout. I am pushing for a deployment of AI under strict conditions to guarantee safety, prevent discrimination and biases, establish liability rules and ensure the protection of personal data.
Legislation must lead innovation in the same way that AI will lead the future. But this future has to be designed only for the benefit of society. 

 

Read the most recent articles written by Susana Solís - Medical Device Regulation: a lack of clarity and too much freedom of interpretation

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