Relations between the Spanish government and the country’s leading specialists in artificial intelligence (AI) have become cloudy. Last week, three members resigned from the Advisory Board of Artificial Intelligence, an advisory body established in 2020 “to ensure the safe and ethical use of artificial intelligence,” “made up of internationally renowned Spanish experts,” as described on La Moncloa’s website. As EL PAÍS learned, other members of the group also considered leaving, although they did not specify.
The impetus was the signing of a cooperation agreement between the Spanish government and a research institute from the United Arab Emirates, ADIA Lab. Last week, the Minister of State for Digitization and Artificial Intelligence (Sedia), affiliated to the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Digital Transformation, announced that the aforementioned UAE laboratory had chosen Granada as the location for its European headquarters. The center will receive an initial investment of five million euros, although the Emirati partners agreed to increase this amount by launching various research projects.
The agreement “is of great concern, as it contradicts the principles of ethics and security that the Spanish government has committed to in developing new technologies,” read an open letter published by this paper on Tuesday, signed by four leading researchers in the field, two of whom until last week served to the advisory board. The ADIA Lab is a science center “funded by a government that does not recognize the independence of science, and that tramples on human rights, especially women’s, LGTBQI+ and immigrant communities,” the text recalls.
The ministry’s decision to ally itself with the UAE alarmed a wide range of advisory board members, who were already upset about its symbolic role in strategic decisions related to artificial intelligence. Feedback was not long in coming. Some suggested a mass resignation, though that option cooled off as the hours went by. Carles Serra, director of the Artificial Intelligence Institute at CSIC, was the first to resign from the position. He was informed of his decision on Wednesday, 24 hours after announcing the agreement with the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority laboratory.
Realizing that the situation required it, the ministry called an “urgent meeting” of the council the next day. It was directed by the Secretary of State, Carme Artigas. They explained from the ministry that “some members asked us to know the details of the agreement, and an informal video conference was organized.” “Two of its members expressed their disagreement and the agreement and its impact on scientific knowledge were explained in detail.”
What was said there did not stop the other two experts from that body from leaving. That same night, Lorena Jaume-Palace, an expert in the ethics and philosophy of law applied to technology and founder of centers such as Algorithm Watch or The Ethical Society, tendered her resignation. The next day, Ricardo Baeza Yates, director of research at the Institute for Experimental Artificial Intelligence at Northwestern University in Silicon Valley (San Francisco), professor at Pompeu Fabra University (Barcelona) and laureate of the National Computing Prize, did so. None of the three experts received any contact from the foreign minister after submitting his resignation.
“Because of the heterogeneity of its members, it is difficult to find consensual positions, which enriches discussion and presents new points of view. Therefore, divergence of standards among members is common, and always with respect for all opinions,” according to sources from the foreign minister. “We consider it very positive that an institution of scientific standing that has Nobel laureates on its board chooses to settle in Spain rather than other European countries such as France or Germany. We respect the decision of the advisory board members who consider that they no longer want to continue to contribute their vision In this body we appreciate their contribution so far,” they add from Sedia.
“A government agreement to set up an artificial intelligence laboratory in Spain funded by a totalitarian state that violates human rights, especially women’s rights, is morally unacceptable,” explains Baeza-Yates. “In fact, it goes against the spirit of the Advisory Council, one of whose tasks is to ensure the ethics of artificial intelligence in Spain. For these reasons I cannot legitimize my silent initiatives that violate the fundamental principles of scientific ethics and therefore I have resigned from the Council.”
“The decision to sign an agreement with ADIA’s lab was not just a serious straw that broke the camel’s back: it is indicative of the Advisory Board’s flawed dynamics and an attitude on the part of the Secretary of State that is in deep contradiction with the ethics and security goals for which the Advisory Board was created,” points out Jaume Palasi. .
As this newspaper has learned, a group of NGOs focusing on human rights, digital rights and immigration are preparing an open letter stating their rejection of the agreement signed between the government and the think tank in the UAE.
Another recurring complaint among some members of the expert group is that the government did not go to them for advice before making strategic decisions. The council had a mainly decorative role. We have not been consulted to assess the impact of AI systems or make recommendations on really relevant issues,” the philosopher complains. “For two years now, the few meetings we have had have been of an advertising nature as we have been informed by very extensive presentations about the Secretary of State’s projects.”
The signatories to the letter include Ramón López de Mantaras, one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence in Europe, and Carmela Troncoso, an expert in algorithmic security and developer of the technical protocol used in Apps From tracking covid, they recognize the courage the government has had in identifying the challenges AI poses to society and in wanting to take action on this issue. The Advisory Board was created in 2020 to “make independent recommendations on steps to be taken to ensure the safe and ethical use of AI”. But they lament that by allying with the UAE, “ethical principles in economics, in science in general and in artificial intelligence in particular” are being ignored.
Troubled waters when fm
The departure of 3 of the 18 experts who make up the Advisory Council was not the first conflict that arose in the Secretary of State. The department has experienced several cramps since its inception in January 2020. The department’s chief, Carme Artigas, has had three chiefs of staff in less than three years. Several advisors left the team at this time, including signatures made at Artigas’ express request, as with data scientist Mara Balestrini, who left the position three months after her arrival.
There were also casualties among high-ranking officials who sought residency in other ministries, it was reported confidentiality. They include Fernando de Pablo, Secretary General until May 12, 2020; María José Gómez, Deputy General Manager for Talent and Digital Entrepreneurship; David Perez, Area Coordinator of Technology and Digital Entrepreneurship, or Amparo Perez, Deputy General Manager of the Digital Community.
Two months after the establishment of the division led by Artigas, Spain was tied up. The Secretary of State led a project to develop an app to track cases of the virus, which involved coordination between various ministries and working groups. Most of Artigas’ departures occurred during that process. The app was only able to notify 150,000 infections in about two years.
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