Tackling racism in Europe's AI strategy

With the growing influence of artificial intelligence on daily life, MEPs are calling on the EU to look at how the technology may create structural racism, explains Rajnish Singh.
Cornelia Ernst (left) and Samira Rafaela (right) | Photo credit: European Parliament Audiovisual

By Rajnish Singh

Rajnish Singh is Commissioning Editor at the Parliament Magazine

30 Oct 2020

Investment and research in the use of digital technologies is a key priority for the Ursula von der Leyen Commission, with artificial intelligence (AI) at its forefront. Yet many European Parliament deputies are raising concerns over the ethical implications of this innovation and its potentially negative impact on society, particularly on non-white and minority people.

Although recognising the positive impact of AI, Renew deputy Samira Rafaela warned, “New technologies can improve our lives and open our minds; however it can also, at the same time, harm and discriminate against certain groups of people and contribute to their exclusion from our society.”

Rafaela was speaking at a webinar, organised by the Anti-Racism and Diversity Intergroup (ARDI) in mid- October, on the effect of technology on structural racism and digital rights.

She stressed the importance of influencing the EU’s digital policy early in the legislative process. “Artificial intelligence and algorithms already have a horrible track record in areas such as sexism and racism,” the ARDI co-president told attendees. For the Dutch MEP, it’s vital that EU policymakers understand how digital tools and technologies negatively impact peoples’ lives.

According to Rafaela, “Political debate on the different social and the ethical challenges is largely absent.” She called on the EU to create a ‘package of measures’, where members of civil society, particularly from minority communities, can be consulted and have their say in future EU legislation. Fellow ARDI co-president Cornelia Ernst pointed out how digitalisation and new technologies such as AI were high on the agenda for the EU.

She observed that the European Commission was now making tackling racism a priority, noting that “The Parliament and the European Commission have recently not only showed, but also proved, they have a high interest in addressing structural racism too.”

“Artificial intelligence and algorithms already have a horrible track record on issues such as sexism and racism”

She accepted that many issues need to be tackled in both areas, saying they were both complex issues that require greater political effort from the EU to address. This is particularly important when setting up concrete and measurable targets.

The German deputy stressed that legislating for AI and tackling racism were linked. “The bigger problem is the lack of connection between these fields. It is not uncommon to use digital tools and technologies to stigmatise specific groups of people; important aspects of relevant (digital) legislation completely overlook such discrimination.”

She continued, “We must draw the attention of the Commission and other actors to the importance of this intersection. Perhaps even more importantly, we need to listen to, and learn from, experts.” The GUE/NGL deputy stressed there was an urgent need to tackle this issue. “There is no time to waste. Unfortunately, we too often find ourselves in a situation when the EU adopts laws that are not well informed or do not reflect existing expertise.”

Cabinet advisor on digital policy to Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Anthony Whelan, warned it was not straightforward to tackle online structural racism by duplicating current legislation. “We can’t simply translate offline discrimination rules into the online sphere. Often we need to adapt them to make them work.”

He reassured attendees that the EU’s White Paper on AI had put forward many ideas on how to tackle racial bias. He stressed that “human autonomy should always be in charge of human rights and tackling discrimination (online), rather than leaving it to the machines, no matter how well designed they are”.

Whelan told attendees that the European Commission will take on board discussions from public consultations and will consider their conclusions in the upcoming AI legislation that will be put forward next year.

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