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AI in the EU: Balancing benefit and control

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When the president of the European Commission made her first speech to the European Parliament in December 2019, she officially recognized 'Artificial Intelligence' as an area of strategic importance for the European Union. Nine months later, addressing once again the European Parliament in her maiden “State of the Union’ speech”, she had moved from spelling out “Artificial Intelligence” to talking in terms of ‘AI’ – so well-known is the technology within the EU bubble now. This is not so surprising when AI is being deployed across most (if not all) sectors of the economy, from disease diagnosis to minimizing the environmental impact of farming, writes Angeliki Dedopoulou, senior manager for EU Public Affairs with Huawei Technologies.

It is true that much work has been done by the European Commission since President Ursula Von der Leyen and her team took office. Already promised in December 2019 was a “legislative proposal” on AI – what was delivered was an AI White Paper in February. While this, admittedly, is not a legislative proposal, it is a document that has kick-started the debate on human and ethical AI, the use of Big Data, and how these technologies can be used to create wealth for society and business.

The Commission’s White Paper emphasizes the importance of establishing a uniform approach to AI across the EU’s 27 member states, where different countries have started to take their own approach to regulation, and thus potentially, are erecting barriers to the EU’s single market. It also, importantly for Huawei, talks about plans to take a risk-based approach to regulating AI.

At Huawei we studied the White Paper with interest, and along with (more than 1,250!) other stakeholders, contributed to the Commission’s public consultation, which closed on 14 June, giving our input and ideas as experts working in this field.

Finding the balance

The main point that we emphasized to the Commission is the need to find the right balance between allowing innovation and ensuring adequate protection for citizens.

In particular, we focused on the need for high-risk applications to be regulated under a clear legal framework, and proposed ideas for what the definition of AI should be. In this regard, we believe the definition of AI should come down to its application, with risk assessments focusing on the intended use of the application and the type of impact resulting from the AI function. If there are detailed assessment lists and procedures in place for companies to make their own self-assessments, then this will reduce the cost of initial risk assessment – which must match sector-specific requirements.

We have recommended that the Commission looks into bringing together consumer organizations, academia, member states, and businesses to assess whether an AI system may qualify as high-risk. There is already an established body set up to deal with these kinds of things – the standing Technical Committee High Risk Systems (TCRAI). We believe this body could assess and evaluate AI systems against high-risk criteria both legally and technically. If this body took some control, combined with a voluntary labelling system, on offer would be a governance model that:

• Considers the entire supply chain;

• sets the right criteria and targets the intended goal of transparency for consumers/businesses;

• incentivizes the responsible development and deployment of AI, and;

• creates an ecosystem of trust.

Outside of the high-risk applications of AI, we have stated to the Commission that the existing legal framework based on fault-based and contractual liability is sufficient – even for state-of-the-art technologies like AI, where there could be a fear that new technology requires new rules. Extra regulation is however, unnecessary; it would be over-burdensome and discourage the adoption of AI.

From what we know of the current thinking within the Commission, it appears that it also plans to take a risk-based approach to regulating AI. Specifically, the Commission proposes focusing in the short-term on “high-risk” AI applications – meaning either high-risk sectors (like healthcare) or in high-risk use (for example whether it produces legal or similarly significant effects on the rights of an individual).

So, what happens next?

The Commission has a lot of work to do in getting through all the consultation responses, taking into account the needs of business, civil society, trade associations, NGOs and others. The additional burden of working through the coronavirus crisis has not helped matters, with the formal response from the Commission now not expected until Q1 2021.

Coronavirus has been a game-changer for technology use in healthcare of course, and will no doubt have an impact on the Commission’s thinking in this area. Terms such as “telemedicine” have been talked about for years, but the crisis has turned virtual consultations into reality – almost overnight.

Beyond healthcare we see AI deployment being continuously rolled out in areas such as farming and in the EU’s efforts to combat climate change. We are proud at Huawei to be part of this continuous digital development in Europe – a region in which and for which we have been working for 20 years. The development of digital skills is at the heart of this, which not only equips future generations with the tools to seize the potential of AI, but will also enable the current workforce to be active and agile in an ever-changing world: there is a need for an inclusive, lifelong learning-based and innovation-driven approach to AI education and training, to help people transition between jobs seamlessly. The job market has been heavily impacted by the crisis, and quick solutions are needed.

As we wait for the Commission’s formal response to the White Paper, what more is there to say about AI in Europe? Better healthcare, safer and cleaner transport, more efficient manufacturing, smart farming and cheaper and more sustainable energy sources: these are just a few of the benefits AI can bring to our societies, and to the EU as a whole. Huawei will work with EU policymakers and will strive to ensure the region gets the balance right: innovation combined with consumer protection.

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US and China positions at a standstill in entrenched Tianjin talks

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With no indication of a US-China leaders' summit in the works, nor any outcomes announced from high-level diplomatic talks on Monday (26 July), relations between Beijing and Washington appear to be at a standstill as both sides insist the other must make concessions for ties to improve, write Michael Martina and David Brunnstrom.

US officials had stressed that Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman's trip to the northern Chinese port city of Tianjin to meet Foreign Minister Wang Yi and other officials was a chance to ensure that stiffening competition between the two geopolitical rivals does not veer into conflict.

But the combative statements that emerged from the meeting – albeit coupled with suggestions from officials that closed-door sessions were marginally more cordial – mirrored the tone set in Alaska in March, when the first senior-level diplomatic talks under President Joe Biden were overshadowed by rare public vitriol from both sides.

While Tianjin did not expose the same degree of outward hostility that was on display in Alaska, the two sides appeared to stop short of actually negotiating anything, sticking instead to lists of established demands.

Sherman pressed China on actions Washington says run counter to the rules-based international order, including Beijing's crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong, what the U.S. government has deemed is an ongoing genocide in Xinjiang, abuses in Tibet and the curtailing of press freedoms.

"I think it'd be wrong to characterize the United States as somehow seeking or soliciting China's cooperation," a senior U.S. administration official told reporters after the talks, referring to global concerns such as climate change, Iran, Afghanistan and North Korea.

"It is going to be up to the Chinese side to determine how ready they are as well to… take the next step," a second U.S. administration official said of bridging disagreements.

But Wang insisted in a statement that the ball was in the United States' court.

"When it comes to respecting international rules, it is the United States that must think again," he said, demanding that Washington remove all unilateral sanctions and tariffs on China.

China's Foreign Ministry has recently signaled there could be preconditions for the United States on which any kind of co-operation would be contingent, a stance some analysts say is a recipe for diplomatic ossification and that leaves dim prospects for improved ties.

Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said it was important for the two sides to maintain some form of engagement. At the same time, there appeared to be no agreement in Tianjin for follow-up meetings or mechanisms for ongoing dialogue.

"That will probably leave US allies and partners uneasy. They are hoping for greater stability and predictability in the US-China relationship," Glaser said.

Both sides are likely to be disappointed if they expect the other to give in first, she added.

There has been some expectation in foreign policy circles that Biden could meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping for the first time since becoming president on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Italy in October.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the prospect of a Biden-Xi meeting did not come up in Tianjin, though she added that she expects there will be some opportunity to engage at some point.

Indications are, meanwhile, that the Biden administration may scale up both enforcement actions impacting Beijing – such as cracking down on Iranian oil sales to China – and coordination with allies in the context of countering China, including another summit later this year that Biden is keen to host with the leaders of Japan, Australia, and India.

Biden's White House also has given few signals that it intends to roll back tariffs on Chinese goods established under the Trump administration.

At the same time, cooperation on the COVID-19 pandemic seems almost entirely out of reach, with the United States calling Beijing's rejection of a World Health Organization plan for further study of the virus' origin "irresponsible" and "dangerous".

There has been little sign either of a willingness by China to cooperate with Washington on the climate issue, a priority for Biden, despite energetic entreaties by U.S. climate envoy John Kerry.

"What was on display in Tianjin is that both sides are still very far apart on how they view the value and role of diplomatic engagement," said Eric Sayers, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Scott Kennedy, a China specialist at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies,, said neither side saw much upside for now in being more cooperative.

"And there's no low-hanging fruit for cooperation for either side and any gesture toward co-operation actually comes with significant costs, both domestic and strategic," he said.

"I think we ought to have very low expectations about the two sides finding common ground and stabilizing the relationship in the near future."

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Chinese president Xi Jinping visits troubled region of Tibet

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President Xi Jinping (pictured) has visited the politically troubled region of Tibet, the first official visit by a Chinese leader in 30 years, writes BBC.

The president was in Tibet from Wednesday to Friday, but the visit only reported by state media on Friday due to the sensitivities of the trip.

China is accused of suppressing cultural and religious freedom in the remote and mainly Buddhist region.

The government denies the accusations.

In footage released by state broadcaster CCTV, Mr Xi was seen greeting a crowd wearing ethnic costumes and waving the Chinese flag as he left his plane.

He arrived in Nyingchi, in the south-east of the country and visited a number of locations to learn about urban development, before travelling to the capital Lhasa on the high-altitude railway.

While in Lhasa, Mr Xi visited the Potala Palace, the traditional home of exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

People in the city had "reported unusual activities and monitoring of their movement" ahead of his visit, advocacy group International Campaign for Tibet said on Thursday.

Mr Xi last visited the region 10 years ago as vice-president. The last sitting Chinese leader to officially visit Tibet was Jiang Zemin in 1990.

State media said Mr Xi took time to learn about the work being done on ethnic and religious affairs and the work done to protect Tibetan culture.

Many exiled Tibetans accuse Beijing of religious repression and eroding their culture.

Tibet has had a tumultuous history, during which it has spent some periods functioning as an independent entity and others ruled by powerful Chinese and Mongolian dynasties.

China sent in thousands of troops to enforce its claim on the region in 1950. Some areas became the Tibetan Autonomous Region and others were incorporated into neighbouring Chinese provinces.

China says Tibet has developed considerably under its rule, but campaign groups say China continues to violate human rights, accusing it of political and religious repression.

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More Tibetan Buddhists behind bars in July

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On 6 July 2021, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibetans, the Dalai Lama, turned 86. For Tibetans around the world, the Dalai Lama remains their guardian; a symbol of compassion and hope to restore peace in Tibet, and ensure genuine autonomy through peaceful means. For Beijing, the Nobel Peace Prize winner is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” who seeks to undermine China’s integrity by pursuing an independent Tibet, write Dr Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy and Willy Fautré.

As a consequence, Beijing considers any country engaging with the spiritual leader or raising the situation in Tibet as interference in its internal affairs. Similarly, Beijing does not allow Tibetans to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday. Moreover, the communist government in Beijing applies harsh punishment for any such attempt, just as it continues its campaign to undermine the Tibetan language, culture and religion, as well as the rich history through brutal repression.

For year Beijing has continued to discredit and subvert the Dalai Lama. Displays by Tibetans of the Dalai Lama’s photo, public celebrations and sharing of his teaching via mobile phones or social media are often harshly punished. This month, as they celebrated the Dalai Lama’s birthday many Tibetans were arrested according to Golog Jigme, a former Tibetan political prisoner now living in Switzerland.

As such, Chinese officials in Sichuan province arrested two Tibetans. Kunchok Tashi and Dzapo, in their 40s, were taken into custody in Kardze in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). They were arrested on suspicion of being part of a group of social media that encouraged the reciting of Tibetan prayers to commemorate their spiritual leader’s birthday.

Over the past years, the Chinese authorities have continued to intensify pressure on Tibetans, punishing cases of ‘political subversion’. In 2020, the Chinese authorities in Tibet sentenced four Tibetan monks to long prison terms following a violent raid by the police on their monastery in Tingri county.

The cause of the raid was the discovery of a cell phone, owned by Choegyal Wangpo, a 46-year-old monk at Tingri’s Tengdro monastery, with messages sent to monks living outside Tibet and records of financial contributions made to a monastery in Nepal damaged in a 2015 earthquake, according to a Human Rights Watch report. Choegyal was arrested, interrogated and severely beaten. Following this development, police and other security forces visited his home village of Dranak, raided the place and beat more Tengdro monks and villagers, detaining about 20 of them on suspicion of having exchanged messages with other Tibetans abroad or of having possessed photographs or literature related to the Dalai Lama.

Three days after the raid, in September 2020, a Tengdro monk named Lobsang Zoepa took his own life in apparent protest against the crackdown by the authorities. Soon after his suicide internet connections to the village were cut off. Most of the monks detained were held without trial for months, some are believed to have been released on the condition of committing to not carrying out any political acts.

Three monks were not released. Lobsang Jinpa, 43, deputy head of the monastery, Ngawang Yeshe, 36 and Norbu Dondrub, 64. They were subsequently tried in secret on unknown charges, found guilty and given harsh sentences: Choegyal Wangpo was sentenced to 20 years in prison, Lobsang Jinpa to 19, Norbu Dondrub to 17 and Ngawang Yeshe to five years. These harsh sentences are unprecedented and indicative of the increase in restrictions on Tibetans to communicate freely, and practice their fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression.

Under President Xi, China has become more oppressive at home and aggressive abroad. In response, democratic governments across the world have amplified their condemnation of China’s human rights violations, with some taking concrete action, such as imposing sanctions. For the future, as China’s regional and global clout continue to increase, like-minded democratic allies across the world must hold Beijing to account concerning the situation in Tibet.

Willy Fautré is the director of the Brussels-based NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers. Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy is a research fellow at Academia Sinica and an affiliated scholar at Vrije Universiteit Brussel’s political science department. 

Guest posts are the opinions of the author, and are not endorsed by EU Reporter.

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