By Mark Surman
Right now, we’re in the early stages of the next phase of computing: AI. First we had the desktop. Then the internet. And smartphones. Increasingly, we’re living in a world where computing is built around vast troves of data and the algorithms that parse them. They power everything from the social platforms and smart speakers we use everyday, to the digital machinery of our governments and economies.
In parallel, we’re entering a new phase of how we think about, deploy, and regulate technology. Will the AI era be defined by individual privacy and transparency into how these systems work? Or, will the worst parts of our current internet ecosystem — invasive data collection, monopoly, opaque systems — continue to be the norm?
A year ago, a group of funders came together at Mozilla’s Berlin office to talk about just this: how we, as a collective, could help shape the direction of AI in Europe. We agreed on the importance of a landscape where European public interest and civil society organisations — and not just big tech companies — have a real say in shaping policy and technology. The next phase of computing needs input from a diversity of actors that represent society as a whole.
Over the course of several months and with dozens of organizations around the table, we came up with the idea of a European AI Fund — a project we’re excited to launch this week.
The fund is supported by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, King Baudouin Foundation, Luminate, Mozilla, Oak Foundation, Open Society Foundations and Stiftung Mercator. We are a group of national, regional and international foundations in Europe that are dedicated to using our resources — financial and otherwise — to strengthen civil society. We seek to deepen the pool of experts across Europe who have the tools, capacity and know-how to catalogue and monitor the social and political impact of AI and data driven interventions — and hold them to account. The European AI Fund is hosted by the Network of European Foundations. I can’t imagine a better group to be around the table with.
Over the next five years, the European Commission and national governments across Europe will forge a plan for Europe’s digital transformation, including AI. But without a strong civil society taking part in the debate, Europe — and the world — risk missing critical opportunities and could face fundamental harms.
At Mozilla, we’ve seen first-hand the expertise that civil society can provide when it comes to the intersection of AI and consumer rights, racial justice, and economic justice. We’ve collaborated closely over the years with partners like European Digital Rights, Access Now Algorithm Watch and Digital Freedom Fund. Alternatively, we’ve seen what can go wrong when diverse voices like these aren’t part of important conversations: AI systems that discriminate, surveil, radicalize.
At Mozilla, we believe that philanthropy has a key role to play in Europe’s digital transformation and in keeping AI trustworthy, as we’ve laid out in our trustworthy AI theory of change. We’re honoured to be working alongside this group of funders in an effort to strengthen civil society’s capacity to contribute to these tech policy discussions.
In its first step, the fund will launch with a 1,000,000 € open call for funding, open until November 1. Our aim is to build the capacity of those who already work on AI and Automated Decision Making (ADM). At the same time, we want to bring in new civil society actors to the debate, especially those who haven’t worked on issues relating to AI yet, but whose domain of work is affected by AI.
To learn more about the European AI Fund visit http://europeanaifund.org/