With a strong democracy and reputation for first-class research, Switzerland has the potential to be at the forefront of shaping ethical AI.

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SwissCognitiveThe debate on contact-tracing highlights the urgency of tackling unregulated technologies like artificial intelligence (AI). With a strong democracy and reputation for first-class research, Switzerland has the potential to be at the forefront of shaping ethical AI.

What is Artificial Intelligence (AI)? “Artificial intelligence is either the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity,” the prominent scientist, Stephen Hawking, who died in 2018, once said.

An expert group set up by the European Commission presented a draft of ethics guidelines for trustworthy AI at the end of 2018, but as of yet there is no agreed global strategy for defining common principles, which would include rules on transparency, privacy protection, fairness, and justice.

Thanks to its unique features – a strong democracy, its position of neutrality, and world-class research – Switzerland is well positioned to play a leading role in shaping the future of AI that adheres to ethical standards. The Swiss government recognizes the importance of AI to move the country forward, and with that in mind, has been involved in discussions at the international level.

What is AI?

There is no single accepted definition of Artificial Intelligence. Often, it’s divided into two categories, Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) which strives to closely replicate human behaviour while Narrow Artificial Intelligence focuses on single tasks, such as face recognition, automated translations and content recommendations, such as videos on YouTube.

However, on the domestic front, the debate has just begun, albeit in earnest as Switzerland and other nations are confronted with privacy concerns surrounding the use of new technologies like contact-tracing apps, whether they use AI or not, to stop the spread of Covid-19.

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The European initiative – the Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing initiative PEPP-PT – advocated a centralized data approach that raised concern about its transparency and governance. However, it was derailed when a number of nations, including Switzerland, decided in favour of a decentralized and privacy-enhancing system, called DP-3T (Decentralized Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing). The final straw for PEPP-PT was when Germany decided to exit as well.

“Europe has engaged in a vigorous and lively debate over the merits of the centralized and decentralized approach to proximity tracing. This debate has been very beneficial as it made the issues aware to a broad population and demonstrated the high level of concern with which these apps are being designed and constructed. People will use the contact-tracing app only if they feel that they don’t have to sacrifice their privacy to get out of isolation,” said Jim Larus. Larus is Dean of the School of Computer and Communication Sciences (IC) at EPFL Lausanne and a member of the group that initially started the DP3T effort at EPFL.

According to a recent survey, nearly two-thirds of Swiss citizens said they were in favour of contact tracing. The DP-3T app is currently being tested on a trial basis, while waiting for the definition of the legal conditions for its widespread use, as decided by the Swiss parliament​. However, the debate highlights the urgency of answering questions surrounding ethics and governance of unregulated technologies.

The “Swiss way”

Artificial intelligence was included for the first time in the Swiss government’s strategy to create the right conditions to accelerate the digital transformation of society.

Last December, a working group delivered its report to the Federal Council (executive body) called the “Challenges of Artificial Intelligence”. The report stated that Switzerland was ready to exploit the potential of AI, but the authors decided not to specifically highlight the ethical issues and social dimension of AI, focusing instead on various AI use cases and the arising challenges. 

“In Switzerland, the central government does not impose an overarching ethical vision for AI. It would be incompatible with our democratic traditions if the government prescribed this top-down,” Daniel Egloff, Head of Innovation of the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI) told swissinfo.ch. Egloff added that absolute ethical principles are difficult to establish since they could change from one technological context to another. “An ethical vision for AI is emerging in consultations among national and international stakeholders, including the public, and the government is taking an active role in this debate,” he added. […]


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