Robot Brains Need Human Rules

Artificial intelligence is too useful and advanced and to ignore. But it also comes with huge risks, and should be limited accordingly.

Service robot ''L2B2''
Kathrin Werner


MUNICH — If you want a good scare, take a look at the artificial intelligence on display at this year's South By Southwest festival in Texas. Scientists there report that people can control prostheses with their brains. Artificial Intelligence will soon control artificial body parts while robotic brains will hire workers, predict crime, control drones and manage health data.

Futurist Ray Kurzweil prophesies that by 2029, AI will be as intelligent as we are — and that no one will be able to tell whether we are talking to machines or actual people. Billionaire, technology fan and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, for his part, thinks artificial intelligence is more dangerous than nuclear weapons.

To dismiss these concerns as simply fear of the future — the way people once feared the advent of railways — is to ignore the real shifts that are taking place, and place entirely too much faith in technology. Unlike any other invention in history, artificial intelligence has a new dimension: Nobody understands it. That's because, after its initial programming, it continues to develop — on its own — and makes decisions that its inventors cannot explain. Rules for robot brains are thus urgently needed.

Technology is developing faster than legislation

But there's a problem: Because of the whole rhetoric about the robocalypse, the danger of overregulation is even greater than the danger posed by AI itself. AI, after all, presents huge opportunities for progress — when it comes to curing diseases, for example — because it can work through large amounts of data much better than the human brain can. Such applications are already a reality or close to reality. But an AI that would take over world domination has so far remained science fiction.

Any regulation of artificial intelligence faces a fundamental problem: Technology is developing faster than legislation. AI is also a collective term that covers several technologies. There isn't just one artificial intelligence. This misunderstanding is what drives demands to establish an AI authority to control AI. That's a bad idea. After all, there is no computer authority that sets rules for computers. AI is a tool, and so regulation must start where this tool can cause damage.

Artificial intelligence applied to daily work in China Photo: Yu Fangping/ZUMA

Autonomous cars, for example, are not allowed to decide for themselves to exceed speed limits just because drivers around them are driving too fast. Similarly, there must be limits in the area of financial markets and medicine. AI must not be allowed to break any laws that apply to humans. For example, it shouldn't be able to record and analyze conversations in the living room without permission. Responsibility must remain with us humans.

Likewise, there should be no place for the excuse "That wasn't me, that was my artificial intelligence." What's more, artificial intelligence should always make itself clearly identifiable as non-human. Another thing that should also be considered is to have AI devices in place to supervise other AI devices — a robot, for instance, that brakes when an autonomous car drives too fast.

Artificial intelligence will come, whether we like it or not. If we try to slow its progress down with regulations, China will continue to push it forward. So far, the level of knowledge of almost all politicians in such matters is abysmal. They generally only know that keywords like blockchain and AI are important.

They have to face up to the responsibility and take the fears of job losses and of killer weapons just as seriously as the opportunities AI will bring. Before they write laws, they must understand, even though part of technology will always remain unexplainable.

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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