Breaking Analysis | November 20th, 2023
With the EU leading regulatory efforts and Gulf countries reaping economic advantages, the United States must push to uphold democratic values and human rights.
The rapid growth of artificial intelligence—from machine learning to robotics, autonomous cars, and products like ChatGPT—requires a new framework for regulation. On October 30, President Joe Biden issued an executive order intended to advance the “safe, secure, and trustworthy development and utilization of artificial intelligence.” It instructs the federal government to enhance its capacity for AI regulation and risk management. While this is a significant step, it is limited to the executive branch and is not a comprehensive policy.
In 2021, the White House introduced the Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights, and two years later it published “voluntary commitments from leading artificial intelligence companies,” who claimed that they would manage the risks created by their tools. However, these were merely statements of intent and not offers to submit to regulatory authorities. The most that the administration’s efforts will do is serve as guidelines if Congress is able to craft AI legislation. Major US technology companies are therefore left to formulate their own principles for AI development and deployment.
This absence of a unified national strategy weakens the US ability to effectively manage AI and could endanger national security. It is imperative for Washington to prioritize the development of a comprehensive AI policy and not cede global leadership, especially to countries that may not uphold democratic values or human rights.
As part of this initiative, the United States should collaborate with its EU allies and partners in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Both European states and the Gulf are at the forefront of both the aggressive development of artificial intelligence and attempts to rein it in.
The European Union advocates for a human-centered approach. Its proposed regulations prioritize transparency, traceability, and nondiscrimination in AI applications. Additionally, the EU AI Act, which may be ratified as early as next month, emphasizes the need for comprehensive algorithm analysis to safeguard privacy rights and mitigate the risk of bias resulting from automation. This proactive, rights-focused approach—driven by a commitment to protect Western values in the face of authoritarian regimes—puts European states in the vanguard of global AI regulation. “On artificial intelligence, trust is a must, not a nice to have,” says Margrethe Vestager, executive vice president for the group Europe Fit for the Digital Age.
The proposed legislation would create the European Artificial Intelligence Board, with the primary responsibility of enforcement. Additionally, companies can be fined up to €30 million or six percent of their worldwide revenues if they provide inaccurate test results for their AI tools. The European legislation further includes robust legal measures to mitigate the potentially devastating consequences of generating pathogens and other biohazards.
While Europe focuses on regulation, the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council are primarily motivated by economic considerations, with substantial investments and growing demands in transportation, online commerce, and healthcare sectors. But they see regulation as a way to maximize the benefits of AI.
Countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE are counting on these new technologies as they seek to diversify their economies. The Saudi Vision 2030 aims to position the kingdom as a leader in AI, especially by establishing itself as a regional hub by attracting international talent and hosting world-class conferences. An example is the Black Hat Middle East and Africa cybersecurity conference, which was hosted in mid-November in Riyadh. This event provided an opportunity to draw information-security experts from across the globe, and featured a competition with prize money up to one million Saudi Riyals (more than $250,000).
To fulfill the broader Vision 2030 objectives, which include empowering women and youth, Saudi Arabia has dedicated $500 billion in funding over the next decade. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman aims to elevate Saudi Arabia to a preeminent regional power, acknowledging the strategic importance of technology in safeguarding the nation’s interests. This includes the creation of NEOM, a futuristic city that will serve as a community for innovative thinkers and play a role in achieving technological supremacy. NEOM recently announced a $100 million investment in collaboration with a Chinese startup to develop and deploy autonomous vehicles in the region.
Saudi Arabia is also taking a leading position in the region in investing in digital twin technology, a virtual-reality system that facilitates real-time decision-making through data analysis, prediction, and optimization. The kingdom’s Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs has collaborated with the South Korean tech giant Naver to develop such a platform. This leverages Saudi Arabia’s substantial financial resources and South Korea’s cutting-edge technology to create new AI tools. The partners assert that the product will adhere to human-rights principles and ensure algorithm transparency. The deal prompted South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol to declare, “If South Korea, which has cutting-edge technologies and a successful experience of industrial development, joins hands with Saudi Arabia, with its abundant capital and growth potential, we can create synergy stronger than any other nation.”
The UAE has joined the regional race toward the future by formulating its own vision, the National Artificial Intelligence Strategy 2031. The Emiratis seek to gain prominence in artificial intelligence by pursuing eight well-defined strategic objectives. The first and most important is to become a regional AI destination by increasing assets in priority sectors through the deploying cutting-edge technology and building an AI ecosystem to attract talent from around the globe. However, while its vision for development is comprehensive, the cabinet has not yet created AI regulations.
As part of this effort to lead in new technologies and cybersecurity, Dubai next year will host the GITEX Global, a tech exhibition featuring more than 350 actors in the digital economy, from more than 170 countries, to enhance public-private collaboration. Abu Dhabi is also trying to push into the transportation and information spaces by organizing the world’s largest autonomous-car racing league. In this groundbreaking competition to be held in April 2024, there will be no human drivers; instead, coders control the vehicles. This event is intended to capture the attention of not only racing enthusiasts but also the entire self-driving-car industry.
The two Gulf powers are by far the regional leaders, exposing disparities with their neighbors, though Egypt and Morocco are working to close this gap. While most nations aspire to harness the potential of artificial intelligence, some may face challenges in strategic planning and securing the financial resources necessary for research or organizing international events. Still, the adoption of AI in the Middle East’s healthcare sector is projected to increase its growth by 10 percent, doubling the pace of the global market.
Given this explosion in AI financing and development strategies, the first states or regions to develop comprehensive regulations with broad international acceptance will set the standards. Consequently, it is imperative for the United States to take swift action in collaboration not just with top regulators like the European Union but also aspiring players like the Gulf states. These actors must cooperate to safeguard human rights, prioritize human-centric norms, and ensure transparency in algorithms.
One bipartisan US initiative, advanced by senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Josh Hawley (R-MO), not only specifies AI principles but creates an oversight body independent from corporate interests. It is crucial not to entrust these regulations to tech-industry giants. The proposal mandates that firms register with the regulator and undergo an audit of their tools before they can be licensed. Moreover, in line with Biden’s executive order, the legislation would also require developers to share test results related to training data and safety. Ultimately, the act would hold tech companies responsible for instances where their systems result in data breaches, violate civil rights, or yield biased and discriminatory decisions.
Enacting comprehensive legislation in the United States would enhance the transatlantic relationship with the European Union on artificial intelligence. Additionally, it is crucial to encourage countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE to align with Western values as they capitalize on their potential as AI hubs. Middle Eastern countries are primarily focused on the economic benefits of AI, allocating minimal efforts toward regulation to ensure that technologies are unbiased and safeguard democratic principles. US regulators must allow these states to maximize the potential of artificial intelligence while curbing its malign use.