Who is afraid of AI?

As with past misguided regulation, the EU’s new AI rules will most likely ensure Europe lags behind in the technology.

A cartoon showing someone working on AI about to be overwhelmed by regulations
Weighing down AI innovation with burdensome regulation may be “historic,” but not in the way that EU policymakers would like you to believe. © GIS – This cartoon is available for sale in our shop.

“Historic!” trumpeted Thierry Breton, the European Commissioner for Internal Market, in a statement extolling new comprehensive regulations over artificial intelligence (AI) that in his words would make Europe “the first continent to set clear rules” for the technology. The assumption is that the European Union, having approved the rules in December, is blazing a trail that the rest of the world is likely to follow.

While all that sounds commendable, it is worth reflecting on whether the initiative is driven by fear, naivety, incompetence or simply a wish to exert greater influence over citizens and the economy. The EU has a track record of packaging interventionist, protectionist and economic control mechanisms as “ethical” necessities.

GDPR gone wrong

A glaring example is the implementation of the General Directive on Data Protection (GDPR) in 2018. The intention seemed right: protecting personal data, especially against potential illicit use by governments, media, pressure groups and businesses. So far, so good.

However, there are some hidden pitfalls. The directive’s design places a huge burden on most businesses, going beyond requiring efficient systems to protect individuals’ privacy and rights to their own data.

Even worse, governments can bypass the GDPR by issuing special legislation. Authorities are using this tool to demand that citizens be held accountable to the state, rather than vice versa. Unfortunately, the technocratization of politics is transforming a dedicated civil service into an imposing bureaucracy. The staggering amount of data this bureaucracy collects gives it more and more power. As history has shown, these developments harm freedom and individual responsibility.

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The fundamental difference between data collection by businesses and governments is that governments can compel people to disclose their data. This leads to extremes throughout most walks of life: doctors spend more time filling out paperwork than caring for patients, bankers pore over classification requirements instead of managing funds, farmers are required to adhere to elaborate reporting mechanisms rather than tend to their crops.

Protectionist agenda

The GDPR had other justifications, of course. One was clearly protectionist: it was sold as a way to check American technology corporations like Google. The result? Google still dominates the European market, but European companies were so constrained by GDPR that it hamstrung their development.

A more logical approach would have been to treat the right to personal data like property rights, assigning it a price. Governments could have incentivized the use of personal data through tax credits, and misuse could then be treated as theft.

Implementing a regime like that is easier said than done. It would require plenty of painstaking legal work. Nevertheless, thinking along these lines would have made much more sense. For now, it is just a dream – the trend toward greater technocracy continues.

Same old story

The GDPR is not the only misguided European regulation. Infamously, European legislation hampered the development of genetic technology on the continent as well. Realizing that they are several years behind, governments have only now started to liberalize the sector.

It is the same story with AI. Like with any technology, AI has both positive and negative sides. But setting rules before really testing the sector makes little sense. Europe seems poised to repeat the mistakes it made with the abovementioned examples. Yet again, it will fall behind when it comes to technological development.

While there are risks associated with AI, being alarmist about the technology is counterproductive. Its development needs to be observed, and then regulations introduced in a pragmatic manner. The restrictions introduced by the GDPR and on genetic technologies may have given Europeans a feeling of moral superiority, but the negative repercussions have been extensive.

The real danger of AI lies in its potential misuse by governments and supranational organizations as an ideal tool for monitoring and controlling citizens. That would erode freedom and individual responsibility – the two biggest factors that have fostered global prosperity.

The directive praised by Commissioner Breton goes so far as to imply that it could be used to suppress freedom of opinion. While restrictions on hate speech are justifiable, vague phrasing like “ensuring democracy is protected” opens doors to arbitrary decisions and abuse. Having free, responsible citizens is the only way to truly protect democracy.

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