Meeting the AI challenge in 2024


Catherine Miller, Director European AI & Society Fund


2023 was the year that the world woke up to the AI challenge. In the space of 12 months, public debate shifted from astonishment at ChatGPT’s ability to produce plausible sounding texts on an infinite array of subjects, to a serious and consequential debate on the potential and risks of Artificial Intelligence for our societies. Initiatives around AI governance have mushroomed and the year ended with European leaders agreeing the basis for the world’s first comprehensive regulation of AI technologies.

The European AI & Society Fund community has played a pivotal role in these conversations. Many of our partners were engaged to the very last minute of the marathon negotiations over the European Union’s AI Act, demanding that safeguards were not traded away. Many details are still to be finalised but thanks to their dedicated work in the face of intense industry lobbying, potentially significant measures including fundamental rights impact assessments and redress procedures appear to have been secured. Our grantees have been working on other EU initiatives too, as well as locally, for instance with Algorithm Audit’s in-depth analysis of algorithmic profiling for welfare re-examination in Rotterdam, and internationally such as Foxglove’s fight for the rights of content moderators in Kenya (you can read about our community’s impact here).

 

In 2024 there is an opportunity to meet the AI challenge with new ambition and direct the current interest in Artificial Intelligence to shape it for the better. For this we need a strong civil society ecosystem that can be a counterpower to industry and challenge government overreach.

If properly implemented and enforced, the EU AI Act can demonstrate to industry, the public and other jurisdictions that regulating AI is possible and practicable. Our research into the next steps for the AI Act has highlighted that with the right research, technical and investigative skills, civil society can establish sound practices for regulators and secure totemic wins that make a tangible difference to how AI is used. 

As new forums for AI governance open up, there’s the opportunity to cement European policy wins and support civil society internationally to secure accountability over technology. Our community of expert organisations has been at the coalface of AI policy (and on the frontline of industry lobbying) for three years. Their insights can be central to shaping global debates on the future of Artificial Intelligence. The Ada Lovelace Institute’s hard work to get civil society voices heard at the UK’s recent AI Safety Summit is an indication of the kind of effort that will be needed. 


In 2024 there is an opportunity to meet the AI challenge with new ambition and direct the current interest in Artificial Intelligence to shape it for the better. For this we need a strong civil society ecosystem that can be a counterpower to industry and challenge government overreach.

 

The year ahead is also a year of elections. Around the world two billion people will have the chance to vote – 400 million in the EU alone where a new parliament will be elected and a new European Commission installed. While the vote itself will be a real-time experiment in how generative AI affects our democratic processes, the outcome will be a new administration with a fresh programme of work. This is where civil society can really shape the agenda and offer politically salient thinking with actionable recommendations for how AI can be used to serve the needs of people and society, not just the powerful few.

And the question of power will be at the heart of all the work ahead in 2024. While generative AI is seen as a technological innovation, it is powered by familiar industry giants. The recent soap opera around the leadership of Open AI ended with its chief investor Microsoft increasing its influence. Google, Amazon and Meta are likewise busy either developing their own AI products or buying up startups and competitors. The consolidation of control over these technologies along with their widespread adoption into our private and public infrastructure poses a serious test for democratic accountability. Civil society will have to gear up on this front too with a focus on anti-trust measures and new economic models for AI. 

The challenge may seem daunting. We know that industry resources are vast and that they are tenacious in defending their interests. But we know too that our community is strong. They punch above their weight. They work collectively and smartly. But above all they draw strength from their legitimacy in representing the people and communities whose lives will ultimately be affected by the use of technologies. And we know there are many more committed people out there ready to join the fight – in our latest funding calls we could only fund a tiny portion of the interest we received.

 

This is an exciting window of possibility. The European AI & Society Fund is already supported by a generous circle of philanthropic institutions that share our mission and who give us financial and strategic support to do our work. But to really capitalise on the opportunity, we need to get much more money to the organisations that can make this change happen. We are encouraged to see many more funders that recognise the urgency of the mission and are prepared to step up and take on the challenge. In the year ahead, the Fund will use its unique position as a hub for AI and philanthropy to focus on growing our partnerships and creating a strategic shift in the level of funding available to do this important work.  

 

Together we have the momentum to seize the AI moment and together we can bend the power of technology towards democracy and justice. 

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