The EESC issues between 160 and 190 opinions and information reports a year.
It also organises several annual initiatives and events with a focus on civil society and citizens’ participation such as the Civil Society Prize, the Civil Society Days, the Your Europe, Your Say youth plenary and the ECI Day.
The EESC brings together representatives from all areas of organised civil society, who give their independent advice on EU policies and legislation. The EESC's326 Members are organised into three groups: Employers, Workers and Various Interests.
The EESC has six sections, specialising in concrete topics of relevance to the citizens of the European Union, ranging from social to economic affairs, energy, environment, external relations or the internal market.
Biometric recognition for tracking, surveillance and detecting emotions should have no place in Europe's human-centric approach to Artificial Intelligence (AI), says the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) in its response to the European Commission's White Paper on AI, adopted by the EESC plenary on 16 July.
The European Commission has proposed that an AI application should be considered high-risk if it involves both a high-risk sector (healthcare, transport, energy and parts of the public sector) and high-risk use, with a few exceptions that are still to be defined. Only if these two conditions are met, suggests the Commission, should we talk about high-risk AI, which would fall under specific regulations and governance structures.
The EESC believes that this definition risks creating potentially dangerous loopholes. Facebook's political advertising provides a prime example, says the Committee.
Advertising is a low-risk sector and Facebook's news aggregation function can be regarded as a low-risk use. However, argues opinion rapporteur Catelijne Muller, we have seen during election campaigns that the spread across Facebook of fake news and deepfakes generated with the help of AI can have many negative effects and influence how people vote, with interference even from outside Europe.
Should there be exemptions from this, and how many should there be? Rather than making a list of exemptions, the EESC believes it would be better to draw up a list of common characteristics to be considered high-risk, no matter the sector.
Many applications have a strong impact on fundamental rights, stresses Ms Muller, not just on people's privacy, but also on their right to demonstrate or to join a union, for example.
The dark side of biometric recognition
Facial and biometric recognition is one key area where AI touches on fundamental rights. Its use may be allowed for personal identification purposes - and is indeed regulated by the General Data Protection Regulation.
But the widespread use of AI-driven biometric recognition for surveillance or to track, assess or categorise human behaviour or emotions should be banned. All the more so since there is no scientific evidence whatsoever that we can discern a person's feelings based on their biometrics, stresses Ms Muller.
COVID-19 tracking and tracing apps
The EESC also warns against an uncontrolled surge of tracking and tracing technology finding its way into our society much faster and with much less scrutiny than before, in a bid to fight the coronavirus outbreak.
AI techniques and approaches to fight the pandemic should be just as robust, effective, transparent and explainable as any other AI technique in any other situation, says the EESC rapporteur. They should uphold human rights, ethical principles and legislation. They should also be voluntary, because, whether we like it or not, many techniques introduced during the crisis will become permanent.
The EESC hopes that the Commission will take on board its input, as it has done with the recommendations the EESC has put forward since its ground-breaking opinion on AI in 2017, which first championed a "human in command" approach to AI in Europe.
The White Paper on AI, part of a wide-ranging package of measures on AI announced in the European Commission's Communication Shaping Europe's digital future, puts forward:
• measures to streamline research, promote cooperation between Member States and boost investment in AI;
• policy options for a future EU regulatory framework on AI, with a strong focus on high-risk applications.
In February 2020, the Commission launched a public consultation on the White Paper that ran until 14 June and drew over 1 200 replies to the questionnaires and some 700 written submissions. The Commission is currently processing that input and will soon publish a report.
Shaping Europe's digital future outlines the actions the European Commission plans to take to ensure a Europe that is fit for the digital age, one of Ursula von der Leyen's top priorities for her time as president of Europe's executive. It is based on three key pillars:
• technology that works for the people;
• a fair and competitive digital economy;
• an open, democratic and sustainable society.
The EESC has provided its advice on "Shaping Europe's digital future" in a separate opinion, also adopted at the EESC's July plenary, with one key recommendation:
The sheer speed of the digital transformation means that we don't know what new developments will come next month. We must therefore be flexible and adaptable. This requires constant dialogue between all the parties involved. The EESC, as the voice of organised civil society, should be part of it, and we ask the Commission to set up such a permanent dialogue, said the opinion rapporteur Ulrich Samm.
The EESC congratulates the Commission's for its strategy to encourage the uptake of AI technologies while also ensuring their compliance with European ethical norms, legal requirements and social values.
EESC opinion: White Paper on Artificial Intelligence