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More inter-governmental cooperation is needed using Artificial Intelligence to fight Covid-19 Coronavirus.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has greatly facilitated exchanges of views and information between the scientific community. What we have not seen so much is the use of AI for inter-governmental cooperation on all these issues. Jan Kleijssen, Director of Information Society Action against Crime looks at the Council of Europe’s contribution to looking at Artificial Intelligence and its role in tackling Covid-19.


Artificial intelligence technologies have been – and are – continuing to play significant roles during the Coronavirus pandemic. To try to get a Council of Europe perspective, I am joined by Jan Kleijssen, Director of Information Society Action against Crime. Now in terms of AI, machine learning and other digital technologies, what’s been the Council of Europe’s contribution to this in tackling Covid-19?

Jan Kleijssen: Where AI has been extremely useful is in sharing information about the pandemic. For example, information about clinical trials, new insights in how the disease developed etc. Data can now be shared in real time with practitioners such as doctors, medical staff, scientists, research labs all over the world thanks to AI. Any doctor anywhere in the world can now access data bases and have all the latest insights in seconds. That is a remarkable contribution. It has also certainly helped very much in the preparatory work for vaccines. We know that they have to be tested on animals first and then humans – that cannot be done by AI. But all sorts of other calculations, for example identifying the right molecules etc and finding information about related diseases e.g. SARS, on everything that was tested then, there AI can help a lot. It is also used to fight disinformation online, and to ensure that the mapping of the disease is done correctly. So there are various uses of AI. That is also partly because of the Council of Europe, because in a number of these fields it is Council of Europe standards that are the global benchmarks. That is an important contribution. On our website we have put together the contribution of the Council of Europe generally in the fight against Covid-19, and specifically the role that AI has played. So it is very easy to find this online.


How important is a common, coordinated approach in helping to solve this issue?

JK: What is remarkable is that AI has greatly facilitated exchanges of views and information between the scientific community. What we have not seen so much is the use of AI for inter-governmental cooperation on all these issues. To give again the example of the proximity tracing app, at some point in neighbouring countries during lockdown, there were national calls for tenders for companies to come forward with proposals for such apps, which were held in neighbouring countries simultaneously, without any information being exchanged. This is quite remarkable. The answer can only be of course cross-border. We live in Strasbourg, in a border area. Of course, during lockdown very little travel was possible but now thousands of people cross the border every day. In some member states hundreds of thousands of people cross borders to go to work every day, but a contact tracing app will not be operational across borders. Now we are approaching the summer holidays, and people again will be travelling. If there were a single app, with a single protocol that people would trust, because it would be a number of governments that would all agree that this is the right way. And they use the right methods to develop it, that is, they take the advice of data protection authorities very seriously. They make sure that these products are seen and tested, then perhaps you would have a tool that could be helpful. Another issue I would like to raise in this respect is the Digital Divide. This term is often used to describe a gap between the rich industrialised countries and the global south, in the sense that advanced technology is available in the developed world, but not in the global south. But also in our countries there is a Digital Divide. In France 17 million people, about a quarter of the population does not have a smartphone. So you can roll out wonderful tools to be used on smartphones, but if people do not have one, it is not going to do them much good. For instance, within this Digital Divide, we have seen in many countries that it is the elderly who are the least equipped, and they are the most vulnerable to Covid-19.


What can be done about this Digital Divide?

JK: I would like to stress something that the Commissioner for Human Rights has strongly insisted on, very rightly so, and that is digital literacy, AI literacy. It is not enough to roll out products, you must enable people to use them, and therefore to accompany them, empower them, teach them to use them.


How much closer are we to creating a new legal instrument to govern AI intelligence technologies and to further safeguard human rights?

JK: As we speak, this very day in Strasbourg, the special body set up by the Council of Europe to look into the very question you just asked, the ad-hoc committee on Artificial Intelligence, CAHAI, is meeting with representatives and national experts from our 37 member states, from our observer states, but also from civil society, academia and industry. We are making good progress. There were concerns that any form of regulation would stifle innovation. It was alleged that it was industry that held this view. However, it has become abundantly clear in recent months, with CEOs from major companies such as Microsoft, Google, Deutsche Telekom and others, all coming out very strongly in favour of regulation, not of AI itself, but of particular applications of AI that pose a high risk to human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

Some delegations think that existing instruments are sufficient. Existing instruments are clearly the basis, for example the European Convention on Human Rights. But it is also clear that there are now so many applications of AI, which are not covered in existing texts, that it would really serve the protection of human rights and the rule of law that we have specific guidance on a number of these issues, based of course on the ECHR and other texts, and based also on the well-over 200 ethical charters and self-regulating texts that industry, governments and NGOs have come up with. They contain very useful elements, but they are not binding. You cannot invoke an ethical charter before a court. So for a remedy you need a legal basis. We are making good progress, so we hope before the end of the year that CAHAI will come up with proposals on this to put to the Committee of Ministers.

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