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Is CENELEC unqualified to judge intelligence?

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Every schoolchild knows that Google knows everything. So, when Google’s worldwide boss, Sundar Pichai, pronounces that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is “the most profound technology that humanity will ever develop and work on,” we had best take notice.

He told the BBC that, “if you think about fire or electricity or the internet, it is like that. But I think even more profound.” In recognition of that profundity, the European Union is agreeing upon an Artificial Intelligence Act.

The European Commission has been explicit that its ultimate goal is to make the AI Act the blueprint for all the global standards for overseeing AI. For good and for bad. But rather than the EC trying to set any of these standards explicitly itself, the Act’s article 40 gives these detailed powers to the unelected European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardisation (CENELEC). Never heard of them? You are far from alone. But amongst its 37 members is the British Standards Institution (BSI), of which you may be dimly aware.

CENELEC certainly has had lots of experience in setting technical electrical and other mechanical standards. It has well established, and distinctly arcane, processes that are hugely detailed to create these harmonised standards. But when it comes to setting the parameters on how AI should operate, it might just be fair to warn that this is really not at all what the BSI and its opposite numbers were set up to perform. AI is extremely political, and its regulators will have to deal with thorny politics and answer tricky ethical and philosophical problems – such as what in this context is ‘fairness.”

One thing is certain; civil society has next to no access to their decision-making processes. CENELEC sessions are far from public. There is very little accountability. Certainly, the European Parliament has no veto rights. Effectively, even if all outsiders agree to lobby into existence a ‘perfect’ Artificial Intelligence Act, their work could still be undone if the harmonised CENELEC standard-makers are simply not up to the new role.

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