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EU’s AI Act Gets Final Green Light, Sets New Standards in Ethical Governance

The European Parliament has given its final approval to the comprehensive rules designed to govern the use of artificial intelligence (AI) within the European Union.

Termed as the “Artificial Intelligence Act,” this far-reaching regulation received resounding support from lawmakers on March 13, marking a significant development in the EU’s efforts to mitigate the potential risks associated with rapidly advancing technology while fostering innovation.

The legislation, initially proposed in 2021, aims to safeguard citizens from the potential perils of AI technology’s exponential growth, all while nurturing an environment conducive to technological progress. This move comes amidst the backdrop of the emergence of global AI race, catalyzed notably by the arrival of Microsoft-backed OpenAI’s ChatGPT in late 2022, prompting Brussels to expedite the passage of this critical legislation.

The proposal garnered overwhelming support within the European Parliament, with just 46 lawmakers in Strasbourg voting against it, while a significant majority of 523 MEPs endorsed the regulation. The next step involves formal endorsement by the European Council, expected to be completed by May. Subsequently, the legislation will become fully applicable 24 months after its entry into force.

The scope of the rules outlined in the Artificial Intelligence Act encompasses high-impact, general-purpose AI models, as well as high-risk AI systems, which will be subjected to stringent transparency obligations and EU copyright laws. Notably, the act will regulate foundation models or generative AI, exemplified by platforms like OpenAI, which leverage extensive datasets to generate new content and perform diverse tasks.

Among the key provisions, the legislation imposes restrictions on the government’s use of real-time biometric surveillance in public spaces, limiting it to cases involving specific crimes, prevention of genuine threats such as terrorist activities, and searches for individuals suspected of the most serious offenses.

Reflecting on the significance of this legislative milestone, Italian lawmaker Brando Benifei, alongside Romanian MEP Dragos Tudorache, hailed it as a historic step towards ensuring a safe and human-centric development of AI. Tudorache emphasized the delicate balance achieved between innovation and protection, underscoring the regulatory framework’s capacity to foster innovation while mitigating potential risks.

Thierry Breton, the EU’s internal market commissioner, also expressed his satisfaction with the overwhelming support received for the EU AI Act, asserting that Europe has emerged as a global standard-setter in trustworthy AI.

The legislation adopts a risk-based approach, wherein the severity of the system’s risks corresponds to the stringency of regulatory requirements. High-risk AI providers are mandated to conduct comprehensive risk assessments and ensure compliance with legal standards before making their products available to the public.

Breaches of these regulations could result in substantial fines ranging from 7.5 million to 35 million euros ($8.2m to $38.2m), depending on the nature of the infringement and the size of the company involved.

Moreover, the rules encompass strict prohibitions on employing AI for predictive policing and systems utilizing biometric information to infer an individual’s race, religion, or sexual orientation. Real-time facial recognition in public spaces is also banned, although certain exceptions for law enforcement are subject to judicial approval.

Despite the significant strides made in crafting this regulatory framework, the EU faced intense lobbying from various stakeholders, including AI startups and tech giants, during the legislative process. However, Breton affirmed the EU’s resilience against such pressures, asserting that the resulting legislation strikes a delicate balance, ensuring it remains robust, risk-based, and future-proof.

The passage of the Artificial Intelligence Act heralds a new era in AI governance, positioning the European Union at the forefront of shaping the ethical and responsible deployment of AI technologies, thereby safeguarding the interests of its citizens while fostering innovation and competitiveness in the global landscape.

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