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Artificial Intelligence AI European Commission

The EU just opened its AI Office. Here’s what that means


By Webb Wright, NY Reporter

June 17, 2024 | 7 min read

The office is tasked with overseeing the implementation of the AI Act across the EU while also helping lawmakers find harmony between AI innovation and regulation.

The European Commission

The new AI Office is part of the European Commission. / Adobe Stock

The European Union (EU) officially opened its new AI Office on Sunday, part of its ongoing plan to establish itself as a global leader in AI policy.

Operating under the auspices of the European Commission (EC) – the EU’s executive branch – the AI Office’s creation is the latest step in implementing the AI Act, a piece of legislation set to go into effect this summer that establishes new guardrails around some AI tools in Europe.

In addition to helping to guide the law’s adoption across the EU’s 27 member states, the AI Office will be tasked with overseeing safety evaluations for what it describes as “general-purpose” AI models – though the EC has yet to clarify the definition of that phrase.

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Originally drafted in late 2021 and passed in March of this year, the AI Act applies to AI-powered products and services that handle information deemed particularly sensitive or potentially dangerous, such as biometric data. The legislation also requires AI chatbots like ChatGPT to include clear disclaimers notifying users that they’re interacting with a machine.

According to EC spokesperson Thomas Regnier, roughly 85% of generally available AI products and services will not be regulated under the Act “because they pose low to absolutely no risk in the EU.” Any AI company offering products or services in the EU that falls into that remaining 15% – even if they’re based elsewhere – will be required to comply with the new law.

The big challenge, in Regnier’s view, is a perennial one for democracies: achieving equilibrium between liberty and security.

“You don’t want to overregulate these technologies,” he said. “We want to have strong European AI … We’re trying to strike the right balance here between regulation and risks, [while] also investing in this technology, which is the future of all of us, our society and our businesses.”

That same challenge is currently facing lawmakers in the US – which, along with China, has become a global hub for AI research, innovation and talent. And while some early steps have been taken here to regulate AI – including an executive order from the Biden administration aimed at increasing federal oversight of safety testing for AI models – nothing as comprehensive as the AI Act has begun to take shape on this side of the Atlantic.

One of the primary reasons for this stagnation, according to Andrew Grotto, a William J Perry international security fellow at Stanford University, is that the US lacks the kind of broad legislative foundation that's enabled the passage of tech-related legislation in Europe in recent years, such as the Digital Markets Act, the Digital Services Act and now the AI Act: The EU has the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which provides a broad framework for ensuring citizens’ digital privacy. The US, meanwhile, has struggled for decades to meaningfully come to grips with some glaring data privacy issues presented by the rise of the internet and social media.

“The chances of Congress passing a comprehensive regulatory framework for AI anytime soon are slim to none,” Grotto says. “I would argue that you probably can’t regulate AI without having some of these underlying policy issues – like privacy rights – worked out.”

The EU’s new AI Office is divided into five "Units," each of which is responsible for overseeing a particular section of the burgeoning AI industry in Europe: the Regulation and Compliance Unit, the Unit on AI safety, the Excellence in AI and Robotics Unit, the AI for Societal Good Unit and the AI Innovation and Policy Coordination Unit.

The Office will eventually employ more than 140 staffers, including AI specialists, attorneys, policy experts and economists. Of those, around 80 roles have yet to be filled, according to Reigner. The AI Office will have to compete with private companies to recruit top AI talent, an increasingly valuable commodity as deep-pocketed tech firms race to commercialize their own AI products.

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Grotto says this early hiring stage at the AI Office can serve as a bellwether for its orientation as it sets out on a mission to balance regulation with innovation. “In six months’ time,” he says, “if the AI Office has hired more lawyers than it has technologists, that would be an ominous sign.”

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