Artificial intelligence can improve quality of life but potential risks remain

A delegation of members of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) visited three Finnish technological hubs to assess the potential benefits and dangers of artificial intelligence for our society. They stressed that all future developments must encompass three pillars: product safety, consumer trust, and solidarity in health and social care.

Artificial intelligence applications can increase people's wellbeing, but the potential risks need to be taken seriously. The products that are emerging as a result of new technologies and the digital revolution are in general extremely helpful and can have a wide range of uses in all areas of our lives, from dispensing medicines to curing loneliness. However, they need to be handled with care, as they are not always as straightforward as they may seem.

In order to evaluate the opportunities and challenges in a practical way, a delegation of EESC members visited three Finnish organisations involved in developing digital technologies. They assessed the potential benefits and dangers for our society and agreed that any future developments in artificial intelligence should take place with real people as the reference point, in particular in terms of the safety of the products, consumer trust and solidarity in the health and social care sectors. Technology is a tool that can make our lives easier and help society solve its problems, but it must always be human-driven.

People at the core of artificial intelligence

Safety comes first, said EESC member Franca Salis Madinier. All artificial intelligence products can bring about major advantages, but the other side of the coin is that they can also be dangerous. These products are like medicines, it depends on how you use them. For this reason, they absolutely need to be tested and certified before they can be sold, she added. A European certification system for establishing standards is therefore extremely important, because in this way the manufacturers can declare that their products have been checked and there is no risk of harm to people. In addition to safety, other requirements include robustness, resilience and absence of prejudice, discrimination or bias.

Another crucial issue is trust. European citizens need to be able to know which businesses they can rely on. In this respect, EESC member Ulrich Samm recommended referring to trustworthy companies and professionals rather than "trusted algorithms". A European label for trustworthy artificial intelligence companies is needed, one that is based on European values, he stressed. Such a process would create a competitive advantage in the future, because it would make consumer confidence possible: people would be able to recognise companies and products that can be trusted, he stated.

The role of digital technologies is also key in the area of health and social care, where new forms of organisation and governance are being created. The new digital tools should help implement and reinforce, rather than weaken, citizens' fundamental rights. People must always be at the heart of social care. Technology is supposed to support us and make our lives easier, not the other way around, pointed out EESC member Diego Dutto. We must take advantage of the digital transformation to develop the potential of individuals, as well as that of local communities and social economies. The values of solidarity and universality must remain the basis of our healthcare systems and this should be ensured by means of appropriate public investment, he concluded.

EESC members' visit to technological hubs in Helsinki

The site visits of the members of the Committee took place near Helsinki on 22 November 2019, in conjunction with the EESC conference on artificial intelligence, robotics and digital services for the wellbeing of citizens, held in Helsinki the previous day. The first meeting was organised by the Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT), where EESC members could discuss the latest developments in the field of robotics and explore the potential reach of quantum technology projects.

The second visit took place at the University of Applied Sciences (DIAK): the focus was on education, social competencies and technology to prevent isolation and help integration and equality. The final session took place at Airo Island and dealt with innovation and opportunities for business, showcasing specific case studies of products produced by start-up companies, such as the loop shower and the medicine dispenser robot.

A sleeping robot is just another example of the benefits that artificial intelligence can bring to human beings and our society as a whole. It is useful to counter insomnia, a widespread condition in industrialised countries, where it is estimated that about a third of the population experiences a sleeping disorder at least once in their lifetime. The causes of this can be multiple, such as stress or anxiety in the evening, but they all result in people having difficulty properly resting at night.

The sleeping robot may help us fall asleep. By holding it and following its advice and technique, our body will find it easier to relax. The right soft light, relaxing music and breathing exercises will do the rest, helping synchronise our heart rhythm with that of the machine. All in all, artificial intelligence may not be a one-size-fits-all solution, but it can certainly bring considerable benefits.