Artificial intelligence discussed with wit

26. May 2024
Belgian Presidency EU

In 2024, Belgium is holding the Presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU). During this presidency, the country is focussing on citizen participation and has held an EU-related citizens' panel in its own country. The topic: artificial intelligence (AI) and the role the EU could play in this area. The results were presented to political decision-makers, companies and the King Baudouin Foundation on 25 May 2024.

The nine key messages of the citizens' panel:

1. Work: helping humans without replacing them

AI will bring about a profound transformation in the world of work. The panel stresses the importance of adaptation by individuals, companies and unions. AI must assist humans, not replace them. To achieve this, we need to anticipate retraining needs to avoid exclusion. The time saved through the use of AI, by reducing the workload, must be used for tasks that contribute to innovation, improving well-being at work and enabling a better work-life balance.

2. Learning to live with AI: investing in current and future generations

A critical understanding of AI is crucial, especially for young people. AI must be integrated into education, and students must be taught how to use it responsibly. It's essential to understand AI in order to be able to keep a critical eye on it. It is also vital to protect original creators.

3. Economic systems and power relations: a new approach?

AI is turning our business model upside down. Today's monopolies, often non-European, are concentrating power, posing risks for democracy and the EU economy. The EU needs to adapt its economic system to avoid the concentration of power and promote the balanced and competitive development of AI in Europe. This includes taxing AI profits, exploring universal income and encouraging private investment.

4. Scientific research and innovation: unrivalled opportunities

AI offers exceptional opportunities for accelerating research and innovation. It can exceed human capabilities, deliver faster results, and make it possible to test abstract concepts. However, the EU suffers from a brain drain towards countries like the United States, which are investing more heavily in innovation. It's crucial to encourage AI research in Europe, by investing in universities and companies, and informing the public about AI opportunities, to retain talent.

5. The environment: solutions and ecological footprint

The environmental impact of AI is largely neglected. AI consumes an enormous amount of resources and materials. It is crucial to integrate these impacts into climate objectives. The 'polluter pays' approach could be applied to AI, by comparing environmental costs with societal benefits. It's also important to raise public awareness via an eco-score for applications. Regulations and rewards for low-footprint AI should be considered to encourage sustainable practices.

6. Deepfakes and unreliable information: high risks for people and democracy

AI-generated deepfakes and fake news threaten trust, privacy and democracy, and encourage social polarisation. Such content should be classified as 'high risk', contrary to the current provisions of the AI Act. Urgent measures are needed, including sanctions and increased public awareness.

7. The European Union's global position: demonstrating ambition to invest in, protect and promote European values

The EU must strengthen its strategic position by investing in the development of AI and avoiding the brain drain. Dependence on non-European AI systems threatens European values and standards. The EU must therefore dare to invest, standardise regulations and protect its data against cyberattacks. Swift action and increased cooperation between the public and private sectors are essential to maintain a competitive position and defend European values on the international stage.

8. Global agreements: the European Union must take the initiative

Regulations at European level alone are not enough; the EU must have an influence on a global scale to protect its values. The EU must take the lead on international agreements on the ethics, climate impact and social justice of AI.

9. 'Human in the loop' and human contact: two founding principles for the future development of AI

The future of AI lies in integrating humans into the decision-making process and maintaining human contact. Transparency and trust are crucial to its acceptance. In medicine, AI can offer an objective view, but should not replace human clinical judgement. In defence, humans must retain ultimate control despite AI assistance to avoid serious errors.

The full report of the Citizens' Panel can be downloaded here (pdf, 31 pages).

"Experience was highly educational and inspiring"

The citizens' panel is counting on their report being followed up in EU policy: "We did this with all our heart, our wit and a great deal of energy. Our experience was highly educational and inspiring. It was heartening to see that all participants were thinking not only of their own interests, but also of under-represented groups. We hope that our views will be taken into account and that our input will lead to concrete actions that represent the interests of all stakeholders," said one of the panelists.

Hendrik Van De Velde, coordinator of the Belgian Presidency of the Council of the EU, stated: "Society must be heard on important topics such as artificial intelligence and contribute to ambitious policies that meet their expectations. This citizens' panel was the ideal way to increase citizen involvement. The result is nine key messages and a number of concrete directions to help shape the strategic agenda of European policy on AI in the coming years."

What is artificial intelligence?

Artificial intelligence uses computers and machines to mimic the problem-solving and decision-making abilities of the human mind. An AI is able to extract information from data that a human could never gather, for example because it is too numerous or existing patterns are too complex to recognise. Instead of being programmed for every purpose, an AI can find answers and solve problems independently.

The EU's approach to artificial intelligence focuses on excellence and trust to strengthen research and industrial capacities while ensuring security and fundamental rights. "The European AI strategy aims to make the EU a world-class hub for artificial intelligence and to ensure that AI is human and trustworthy," according to the European Commission's website.

For the Citizens' Panel on Artificial Intelligence, 16,200 invitations were sent to residents across Belgium. As part of its Presidency of the Council of the EU, Belgium is endeavouring to involve its citizens in debates on European issues. In particular, the government is seeking to understand citizens' perspectives on the direction Europe should take in relation to artificial intelligence in the 2024 - 2029 intergovernmental period. The results of the beEU Citizens' Forum will be shared with the EU institutions and provide them with a source of inspiration for the next legislative period.

The Council of the European Union

The Council of the European Union, which is chaired by Belgium in 2024, brings together the representatives of the governments of the 27 Member States. It is the forum in which the various governments represent their interests and negotiate compromises. The representatives from the member states act on behalf of their respective governments.

The Council is one of the EU's three main legislative bodies. It adopts legal acts. It also coordinates the policies of the Member States, exercises budgetary powers together with the European Parliament and develops the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy in accordance with the European Council's guidelines.

60 participants

The beEU Citizens' Forum on Artificial Intelligence comprised 60 people selected to represent Belgian society. People were randomly selected to apply for participation. The final participants were drawn by lot from among those who applied.

This method ensured equal opportunities for all and guaranteed a diverse forum in terms of age, gender, place of residence, income level and education. Attention was also paid to an appropriate representation of young people and to the diversity of the Belgian population.

Three meeting weekends

The beEU Citizens' Forum met on 24 and 25 February, 23 and 24 March and 20 and 21 April 2024 at the Egmont Palace in Brussels. The discussions have been held in French and Dutch, with interpreters available. All participants received the information they needed for an objective debate. Qualified moderators facilitated the discussions and ensured an environment characterised by trust and equality. Experts were also be present to enrich the debates.

During the Citizens' Forum, participants were able to discover in particular the various possible applications for artificial intelligence as well as its ethical and societal challenges by talking to a group of experts each weekend.

Enriching experience

All participants found the Citizens' Panel an enriching experience. They appreciated the quality of the discussions and the diversity of views. They also emphasised the importance of citizen participation in decision-making on issues as complex as artificial intelligence.

Ashutosh, a computer science student, said: "The three weekends we had helped me understand the world of AI better, as well as the people around me. Not everyone is a computer science student, so I already had some preconceptions that I was able to confront with other opinions here." Bavo is also very happy to have taken part: "When I arrived, I was a bit scared, I didn't know how it would go. It's now the third weekend and I'm very happy and proud of myself for taking part."

Read more: Citizens' Panel „Artificial Intelligence in the EU“