Puhe englanniksi: European Big Data Forum

Puheeni englanniksi European Big Data Value Forumissa 30.11.2021.

Dear friends, 

It is my great pleasure to be speaking to you today. Big Data Value Association has been one of the key players in charting the path to the data-driven economy. It is also very topical moment. Later today, I will be participating in the trilogues of one of the key legislative initiatives in the data economy – the Data Governance Act. This is the first legislative initiative following the European Parliament’s Data Strategy, where I served as the rapporteur. Exciting times, indeed! 

Zettabyte is an unit so huge it defies understanding. It means a one billion trillion bytes – 1 followed by 21 zeros. According to one estimate, that number is bigger than all the sand grains in all beaches and deserts of our planet. It makes your head spin to just think about it.

But it is even more incredible to think that according to European Commission’s data strategy, the amount of data in the world will increase from 33 zettabytes in 2018 to 175 zettabytes in 2025. So 175 times all the sand grains in dry land from Arabian deserts to the beaches of Mansikkasaari, in a small city of Vaasa, I grew up in. 

Of course, estimates of this scale are educated guesses, at best. However, this gives some idea of the scale of transformation we are seeing. This is a huge opportunity to grasp. Data is quite a different resource than sand. After all, data is mirror of knowledge and knowledge is power. It is the fuel that powers artificial intelligence algorithms that make our lives smarter, more automated. Making use of this fuel is one of our keys to kick-start our societies after the pandemic.

The Treaty of the European Union states, that the values of the Union are human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights. Even though they are sometimes criticized to be too general, they are not irrelevant. This is also true in the digital economy.   We have seen examples of the digital transformation that violate these values. Authoritarian control, violation of human rights and the side-lining of democracy should not be tolerated in our home. In addition, we have a history for a strong market economy that is sometimes threatened by the big monopolistic players. It is important that we build genuinely European transformation that builds upon these values and principles. 

The data and AI are intimately linked. I like to think about the relation between data and artificial intelligence is that if AI-algorithms are the engine, data is the fuel. Even if we have the finest engine, it is useless if we don’t have the necessary fuel. On the other hand, just having the fuel tank full does not make a car move anywhere. 

However, these two parts, data and AI, have their own, particular challenges to politics. I would like to share some of my views on these two matters in turn. 

Building up data economy is not easy. There are tricky questions to be solved and interests to be balanced. So, what the policy-makers can do? 

On the one hand, it is to be important to unleash the data that is scattered across Europe. At this moment, it is difficult to learn from each other. Data stays in silos in different countries, different companies and sectors. Even inside countries data is not used to benefit the economy and society optimally. This is a big waste of resources

On the other hand, we have to be careful how we unleash the data. We don’t want to just open the floodgates and see what happens. We need to create ecosystems of trust, with clear rules and values guiding our data policies. We do not want to see only the big players taking advantage data and create new kinds of silos. For businesses it must be safe and trustworthy to share data between parties. We need to create trustworthy and transparent data economy.

Trustworthiness and transparency are especially important when we are talking about the data created by human beings. It is important that the protections we’ve won, like the GDPR, are not lost in the AI age. We need to keep the humans in the centre – it is the only way to Personal control on who gets to use and share my data must stay at the hands of the individuals. Same applies to companies. It is key, that the companies can share their data in trustworthy environment. 

The path to truly European data economy consists of two parts. First step is technical. We need to create interoperability between different elements of the data economy. This makes it possible to leverage our common strengths to unleash the European innovation. 

Second question for the data economy is political. We have seen digital world dominated by big business and authoritarian states. This requires that we sit down to decide on the rules on what kind of data can be used, by whom and on what terms. I trust this can be done in a way that facilitates more innovation and make the Europe flourish 

This is why I am very happy about our work in the Data Governance Act. This is the first legislative initiative following the European Parliament’s Data Strategy, where I served as the rapporteur From the start, it was clear to the Parliament, that the European data economy must be one, where also small players have a chance to flourish; where human dignity is respected when data is used; and where there are clear safeguards that prevent only the dominant players twisting the market to their benefit. 

In the European Union we are working on legislation that is dealing with these questions in digital economy. However, while the recent packages like Digital Markets Act and Digital Services Act focus on the present, the Data Governance Act is building institutions for the future, trying to pre-empt outcomes that are not beneficial of European values. 

In practice, we have worked to include to make the idea of Common European Data Spaces, meaning interoperable frameworks, from an idea to actual legal concept. We have also made it clear, that large players cannot use their dominating position to conquer data economy on power, and not on skill. Lastly, we have worked to ensure that the different data intermediators cannot build “walled gardens”, where companies and citizens’ data gets locked into one intermediary, without possibility to change the operator. 

The DGA draws the general rules of the game for the data economy in Europe. It will be empty letter if the corporations. This is just the first step. The upcoming Data Act will be taking a look how can we prevent the data from being siloed in different companies, and how the private sector data can be best utilized to benefit public sector and vice versa. These fascinating questions will be the topic of next year as we are still waiting for the Commission proposal next year

But let me move from the fuel to the engine – AI. 

It is sometimes said that we should just let technology go wherever it wishes and the regulating and setting down rules is just a hindrance that will kill the innovation. I don’t agree. I firmly believe that we should sail, not drift, to the technological future. 

By first thinking what is it that we want the technology to do for us, we can focus our energies, resources and passions to objectives where they benefit our societies the most. Technology itself is nothing but a tool. It is the job of democracy also to decide what we build with it.

Europe has been in the frontline in mapping a direction towards secure, trustworthy and human-centric AI. As you well know, after three years of intense consultatation Commission released the AI Act in last March. The work in the Council and Parliament. Two weeks ago, I was trusted to be S&D rapporteur on AI Act in the ITRE Committee. This work starts properly from the start of January. 

Without getting to the details, from the outset the proposal has two big things. 

First is a explicit value stance. The proposal states what we want European AI not to be. 

  • We don’t want social scoring.
  • We don’t want manipulation. 
  • And we want to be protected from constant surveillance.  

The second part is being responsible about the high-risk technologies. There is a long list of areas where reckless use of AI can have real, detrimental impacts to peoples’ lives. When I apply for a job, I don’t want the decision to be made by black-box algorithm. I don’t want that algorithms that claim to read my emotions from my face tell me what I am really like. And whether I get a loan for a house should not depend on my sex  or the colour of my skin. 

I want to be clear: we are not banning AI for all social purposes. We are only saying, that we want the AI to be trustworthy and secure. We do this for vaccines – why shouldn’t we do it for AI systems on the market? 

Of course, the proposal is only something to build on. When you try to force square peg through a round hole, or artificial intelligence through the product legislation of European Union, some friction will emerge. The problems in defining definition of AI is just a one of these frictions. 

Other challenge I would like to mention is standards. The standards of AI and other products like elevators and toys are not quite the same thing. It is clear that the level of acceptable risk in AI systems cannot be decided the same way that we decide the level of acceptable risk in toys. But you have to start somewhere if you want to get somewhere else. 

The AI Act is lot about protection – it says what the AI systems should not do and the standards they should not violate. The other side of the European vision of AI is positive – what would we like the AI to do. It is not enough to just say no – we must also say yes to initiatives that benefit us all. 

There are many areas where AI can bring great benefits to our lives. It can be used to diagnose better diseases and develop new drugs. It can be used to optimise industrial systems, cut down inefficient waste,  it can help us to move around smarter 

AI can make a huge difference in fighting climate change. We have huge European level initiatives, like DestinE, that seeks to create a digital twin of our Earth to model the developments of climate change.

It is not simple to create European data economy. It would be so much easier of not to care and just let go off the control of the economy and just let the economy run its course. But it is not the European way. We have chosen a route, where we want to have a direction before we take off. We have chosen to be active, not passive shapers of technological development. 

I have touched upon today many traditional questions of European politics; the need to protect the rights of our citizens; the need to defend competitive and innovation friendly economy; and the need to keep the technological development working for our values, not the other way around.

However, there are also connections to other challenges we face. Climate change is the most pressing issue of our time. That is why it is important that the digital transformation has large handprint, but small footprint to our environment. AI and data can do a lot towards more sustainable world: through creating new monitoring systems, pre-empting environmental shocks and developing more climate friendly products and services. The other side of the coin is the small footprint. According to one United Nations estimate, the digital technologies were responsible for 10 % world electricity consumption. Further, accoding to Commission, just data centers consumed almost 3 % of the EU electricity in 2018. If no action is taken, this number will increase in the future and. This means, that the footprint is getting larger and larger.

There are solutions to these issues. Developing more efficient algorithms, determining before-hand whether the consumption of energy is justified in the application and placing the data centres to places where it is most environmentally beneficial are just few steps towards this route. The importance of these questions opens room for the innovation and ingenuity of private companies. 

The data and AI are together the engine that pushes Europe to the next economic era. If used properly, the stupefying amount of data can be a powerful current that takes Europe to a new economic renaissance. I have today shared some of my ideas how we make this current to serve the European values and societies. Much work still remains to be done, to make these objectives a reality. We as politicians are very much linked to the workings of the industry

However, as one of the fathers of Europe, Jean Monnet, said, progress happens through partial, but concrete advancements. It is with this idea in mind that tonight I walk to the trilogues of the DGA to negotiate on the details. I firmly believe that after the ink is dry in the signatures, we are one step closer to a truly European, digital transformation, benefitting societies and our wellbeing

I thank you for your time and wish you a great day discussing about these important questions. 


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