What is the EU AI Act?

Sofía Cotillard

The EU AI Act is set to establish pioneering rules governing artificial intelligence. This ambitious legislation categorizes AI systems based on potential risks posed, with outright bans on unacceptable practices like social scoring and surveillance. While still being finalized by EU lawmakers, the Act’s proportionate and layered approach aims to balance innovation and accountability across one of the 21st century’s most transformative technologies.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is transforming societies and economies around the world at a rapid pace. From healthcare to transportation, AI systems are being integrated across virtually all sectors. However, the increased use of AI has also given rise to concerns about potential risks, especially around bias, fairness, and transparency.

As a global leader in technology regulation, the European Union (EU) has set its sights on governing AI through a pioneering legal framework – the Artificial Intelligence Act (AIA). The AIA aims to support innovation while addressing the risks associated with certain uses of the technology.

What Does the AI Act Regulate?

The AIA establishes harmonized rules for the development, marketing, and use of AI systems across the EU. It follows a proportionate, risk-based approach that categorizes AI systems into four groups based on their intended purpose and the risks they pose:

  • Prohibited AI Systems: Banned outright due to practices considered unacceptable by EU standards
  • High-Risk AI Systems: Subject to strict obligations due to significant risks to health, safety, and rights
  • Limited Risk AI Systems: Targeted transparency obligations
  • Minimal Risk AI Systems: Exempted from the rules

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The obligations and restrictions applicable to developers and deployers of AI scale up with each risk category. Importantly, the AIA does not apply to AI systems intended for national security, defense, or military purposes.

Key Provisions

Prohibited AI Practices The AIA completely prohibits certain types of manipulative and exploitative AI systems, including:

  • Social scoring systems used to monitor or classify trustworthiness of citizens in social contexts
  • AI tools using techniques that covertly manipulate human behavior to circumvent users’ free will
  • Some uses of biometric identification systems (like facial recognition) in public spaces by law enforcement
  • ‘Real-time’ remote biometric identification systems unless strictly regulated exceptions apply

Restrictions for High-Risk AI Systems

AI systems identified as high-risk due to their significant potential to affect health, safety, and fundamental rights face a comprehensive set of restrictions under the AIA:

  • Mandatory conformity assessments by developers to evaluate risks
  • Maintaining extensive technical documentation to demonstrate compliance
  • Transparency for users when interacting with AI systems
  • Specific requirements around dataset bias testing, risk management, and accuracy
  • Additional restrictions and obligations tailored for certain high-risk sectors like healthcare

Safeguards for Users

To address opacity concerns around AI and protect end users, strict transparency requirements apply under the AIA:

  • Users must be notified when interacting with an AI system instead of a human
  • Users have the right to request an explanation of AI-assisted decisions that significantly affect them
  • Users can opt-out from human review of high-risk AI system decisions
  • Users can launch complaints if they believe an AI system does not meet mandatory requirements

Governance and Enforcement for EU AI Act

The AIA establishes a governance structure to oversee implementation, advise the European Commission on AI priorities, and ensure coordinated enforcement:

  • A European Artificial Intelligence Board will be set up to facilitate consistency across EU regulators
  • Member states must designate national authorities to supervise high-risk AI compliance
  • Significant penalties for non-compliance include fines up to €30 million or 6% of worldwide turnover

What’s Next for AI Regulation in Europe

With landmark privacy legislation like GDPR under its belt, the EU is positioning itself at the global forefront of AI governance through the AIA’s comprehensive and layered regulatory approach.

While policy negotiations are ongoing and the AIA itself still needs final approval by EU institutions, it is expected to be enacted by early-2024. Key outstanding points revolve around the scope of prohibited AI practices and tailored requirements for use cases like law enforcement.

Once formally adopted, the AIA will overhaul how AI systems are developed and deployed across the EU. By addressing pressing concerns through proportionate obligations scaled to AI risks, the legislation signifies a major step towards ensuring AI safety and accountability on a wide scale. It is also likely to influence regulatory standards worldwide.

Non-EU companies placing AI systems in the EU market will need to monitor developments closely and prepare to meet the far-reaching compliance requirements. Through landmark efforts like the AIA, policymakers around the globe have their regulatory work cut out as they race to govern one of the 21st century’s most transformational technologies.

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