EU’s Landmark AI Act Has Been Approved, US Far Behind

EU AI Act illustration, cyborg-like face next to the European Union flag

After European Union lawmakers reached an agreement on the EU’s landmark EU AI Act in December, the law cleared its last significant hurdle, achieving European Parliament approval earlier today.

Now that EU legislators have given their final approval of the Artificial Intelligence Act, the wide-reaching legislation will go into full effect in roughly 24 months. The precise language of the act is subject to a final lawyer-linguist check, per the European Parliament. It is expected to clear any final formalities before the end of the legislative session.

First introduced in 2021, even before AI hit full swing and encroached upon nearly every human endeavor, the groundbreaking Artificial Intelligence Act has cleared many bureaucratic hurdles. The wheels of the law turn very slowly. Even so, the EU has passed other nations and regions, many of whom, the United States included, are still twiddling their thumbs on regulating AI.

The regulation, agreed upon in negotiations with member states in December, received legislative endorsement by a vote of 523 in favor, 46 against, and 49 abstentions. The European Union says the act “aims to protect fundamental rights, democracy, the rule of law and environmental sustainability from high-risk AI, while boosting innovation and establishing Europe as a leader in the field.”

EU AI Act illustration, cyborg face with electronic-style lines and markings

What Is the EU’s Artificial Intelligence Act?

The AI Act bans specific AI applications that are determined to threaten citizens’ rights, including biometric categorization systems, emotion recognition apparatuses in the workplace and schools, AI-based social scoring systems, predictive policing practices based on profiling individuals or assessing their characteristics, and any AI that manipulates human behavior or exploits someone’s vulnerabilities.

These banned applications are so wide-reaching and potentially nebulous that it is difficult to determine precisely how AI will be regulated and whether lawmakers can even agree on whether something violates the AI Act once it goes into effect. The AI Act includes procedural steps to deal with disagreements, of course.

Nonetheless, there are also some notable exceptions to the regulations, including narrow-defined situations concerning law enforcement.

EU AI Act illustration, surveillance camera on a wall with electronic thematic text on the image

The EU has also targeted specific high-risk systems that AI technology may be working toward, including AI use in critical infrastructure, education, vocational training, healthcare, banking, border management, and democratic processes. AI use within the determined high-risk usage scenarios must be assessed and monitored, and human oversight must be included. Citizens will have the right to submit complaints about AI systems and receive explanations from the government concerning any decisions about the AI in question.

Further, general-purpose AI systems and the models they are based on must meet specific transparency requirements. The EU reserves the right to make more stringent demands upon systems it deems riskier.

“We finally have the world’s first binding law on artificial intelligence, to reduce risks, create opportunities, combat discrimination, and bring transparency. Thanks to Parliament, unacceptable AI practices will be banned in Europe and the rights of workers and citizens will be protected. The AI Office will now be set up to support companies to start complying with the rules before they enter into force. We ensured that human beings and European values are at the very center of AI’s development,” says Internal Market Committee co-rapporteur Brando Benifei (S&D, Italy).

EU AI Act illustration, man with biometric markers on his face

“The EU has delivered. We have linked the concept of artificial intelligence to the fundamental values that form the basis of our societies. However, much work lies ahead that goes beyond the AI Act itself,” adds Civil Liberties Committee co-rapporteur Dragos Tudorache (Renew, Romania). “I will push us to rethink the social contract at the heart of our democracies, our education models, labor markets, and the way we conduct warfare. The AI Act is a starting point for a new model of governance built around technology. We must now focus on putting this law into practice.”

Once the AI Act passes the lawyer-linguist check, it is expected to be formally endorsed by the EU’s Council. It will then enter force 20 days after it is published in the EU’s official journal and be fully applicable 24 months later. However, bans on prohibited practices, as outlined by the AI Act, will apply sooner, going into effect six months after the law is enacted.

The EU’s Landmark AI Act Is a Blueprint for Other Nations and Regions

As for AI regulations elsewhere, the EU’s AI Act will provide a potential blueprint. In the United States, there remains active debate concerning AI in nearly every industry. President Biden issued the first executive order concerning AI last October, although this is merely a directive and lacks any absolute authority.

Vice President Kamala Harris announced the AI Safety Institute just days later, but again, this merely lays the groundwork for potential technical guidance and regulations concerning AI.

These policies are unlikely to continue if President Biden loses his re-election bid this November.

Image credits: All photos licensed via Depositphotos.