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BusinessDay: The EU’s Artificial Intelligence Act can be a blueprint for African tech policy


By Johan Steyn, 13 December 2024


The EU achieved consensus last week on an innovative legislative framework to oversee artificial intelligence (AI), an event that ushers in a paradigm shift in technological regulation. With its formal adoption due in two years, this groundbreaking legislation signifies a substantial achievement in the EU’s endeavours to reconcile the formidable capabilities of AI with the requirement for strong, efficient supervision.


A precise, unambiguous definition of AI systems, in accordance with the criteria established by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), is a fundamental component of this legislative framework. This methodology guarantees conformity between the regulations of the EU and globally acknowledged standards. However, the legislation excludes AI applications that are employed for nonprofessional, military, or defence purposes, with regulatory emphasis primarily on applications in the private sector.


Classifying AI systems according to their level of risk is a critical component of the EU’s AI regulation. Systems that pose a high risk and have the potential to cause substantial societal or economic repercussions are governed by more stringent regulations. The legislation also prohibits particular harmful AI practices, thereby effectively curtailing the implementation of certain detrimental AI applications. 


To supervise the advancement and implementation of sophisticated AI models, the legislation suggests the establishment of an AI office. This entity will assume a pivotal function in consolidating supervision and elevating the prominence of expert analysis within the realm of AI governance. An advisory forum and scientific council will also be established to provide a forum for stakeholder input and guarantee a broad spectrum of viewpoints about AI governance.


Augmenting transparency

The legislation imposes significant sanctions for failure to comply. By tying these penalties to a company’s annual global revenue, it is guaranteed to be substantial and proportionate. To promote technological advancement while maintaining enforcement strictness, the legislation incorporates regulated penalties for small and medium-sized enterprises and start-ups, acknowledging the significance of innovation.


Impact assessments will be mandatory for high-risk AI systems to assess their potential infringements on individual liberties. It will be mandatory for these systems to be officially registered in a database that spans the entire EU, thereby augmenting transparency and facilitating more effective public oversight.


As the technical intricacies of the AI Act near completion and member states prepare to approve the text, the EU is positioned to take the lead in the governance of AI. This legislation establishes a global standard on technology that is undergoing accelerated development. It is expected to have a profound effect on the trajectory of AI deployment and development internationally.


The adoption of a regulatory framework akin to the EU’s AI Act by African nations could facilitate greater international collaboration and standardisation in AI technologies. This would not only bolster Africa’s position in the global AI landscape but also ensure that the continent’s AI innovations are developed in a way that respects the privacy, rights, and welfare of its citizens. 


It also opens up opportunities for African countries to contribute to the global discourse on AI ethics and regulations, bringing diverse perspectives and experiences to the table. As AI continues to evolve, the importance of having robust, well-considered regulatory frameworks becomes increasingly apparent, and the EU’s AI Act could very well serve as a guiding light for African nations on this journey.


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