AI for Consumers: Five things we learnt at the Euroconsumers event on Artificial Intelligence

An uncertain future? 

As with many new and emerging technologies, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is still, to some extent, an enigma. And while it can be hard to separate the myths from the facts, there should be no doubt that AI is already beginning to have a big impact on our daily lives.

From internet-connected voice assistants that help us with our shopping lists, to hidden algorithms that make decisions about what price to charge us for our hotel room, the use of AI has lots of implications, both for consumers and the consumer organisations that seek to protect them.

Last month, we attended and spoke at a Euroconsumers event in Brussels, Belgium, which set out to explore the opportunities and challenges presented by the emergence AI, and what potential it has for the future as machine learning continues to evolve and expand its capabilities.

Below are some of the key learnings from the event –

1. Laws vs Codes

The speed at which technologies such as AI grow and develop makes effective regulation incredibly difficult. By the time legislators have reacted to a problem and passed the necessary laws to protect against this problem, there is a good chance that the tech giants who dominate the AI industry are already taking their algorithms in a different direction.

As a result, there are conflicting opinions as to whether AI should be governed by binding law, or whether certain areas can be left to a code of ethics and self-regulation. At the Euroconsumers event, Paul Nemitz, Principal Advisor to DG Justice at the European Commission, suggested that AI should be developed in accordance to with GDPR principles and consumer law, and the right to ‘meaningful information’ and to ‘object to automated-decision making’ must be monitored and enforced by regulators.

Whilst a code of ethics could help to ensure that killer robots don’t have a place outside of Sci-Fi movies, it is unlikely that ethics alone will be enough to fully protect consumers from the negative impacts that AI could have on their rights. This is why directives such as GDPR will still be an important form of protection both in Europe and beyond.

2. There are lots of issues yet to be solved…

Artificial intelligence throws up a number of a challenging issues for consumer protection across the globe; lack of transparency in terms of how algorithms are used to shape the services & prices we receive online, human bias and discrimination that is reflected in technology, invasive AI that undermines our privacy. AI can even be a fatal safety hazard when it comes to driverless cars.

How we resolve these issues is unclear, but the consensus at the event was that a combination of approaches would be necessary, including greater transparency, stronger enforcement and more corporate accountability. Collaboration will also be key, with consumer organisations, civil society, business and policy-makers working together to develop answers to the questions raised by AI. 

3. …but consumers organisations can use AI to their advantage

As a general-purpose technology, the potential uses for AI are almost endless, and although we often tend to focus on the negative things associated with AI, consumers organisations can use algorithms to their advantage. 

Miguel Lage, Market Analyst at our member DECO Proteste delivered an engaging talk on how consumer organisations could use chatbots to provide useful information to consumers about their rights and the services available to them. BEUC also mentioned an exciting new project they are working on with the University of Florence, which would use AI to trawl through privacy policies and send alerts when it spots GDPR breaches.

Understanding and using new technologies will be an essential step for consumer organisations if they are to evolve and continue to serve consumers in an increasingly ubiquitous digital world.

4. Voice-activated technology to give consumers a voice

Away from the highly publicised battle between Amazon and Google to win the right to place their voice assistant in smart homes across the globe, little attention is given to how AI could be harnessed to change the lives of marginalised consumers in developing countries.

In India, voice-activated technology is a rapidly expanding market, with over 150 million Indians likely to use voice assistants by 2019. Language, however, is a key barrier – 90% of the voice assistants currently available in India only support English. For the millions of Indians who speak languages such as Hindi, Bengali or Tamil as their first language, this is a huge barrier. That is why Indian start-ups such as Liv.Ai, Vokal and Reverie Language Technologies are making strides to create AI technology that can serve consumers in some of the country’s many regional languages, a move which could enable consumers in poorer, rural communities to benefit from the power of voice assistants.

As our Head of Digital Advocacy Liz Coll mentioned in her panel at Euroconsumers’ event, AI can also be a powerful tool for financial inclusion. In African countries such as Chad, Niger and Burkina Faso where levels of illiteracy high, voice activated mobile technology can be used to access essential banking services such as basic payments or even creating a bank account for the first time.

Affordable access to digital products and services, however, will be essential if the true potential of AI is to be realised for consumers in developing countries across the globe.

5. The consumer movement must be ready to adapt

A running theme throughout the Euroconsumers event, especially in the closing remarks from Marco Pierani, Altroconsumo and Henrique Lian, Proteste, was the necessity for consumer organisations to embrace the opportunities brought about by digital technology.

In a world where leading tech companies are racing ahead of the curve, our global consumer movement is in a unique place to serve as the ‘enzyme that rebalances the digital ecosystem’. The challenges of artificial intelligence can be countered by a collective intelligence, which requires knowledge sharing and cross-sector collaboration between consumer organisations, businesses, governments and civil society.

By working together, we can ensure that we create an environment where emerging technologies are built with consumer safety, privacy and security in mind. Where digital products and services are as inclusive and affordable as they are innovative. AI is therefore a challenge that consumer organisations can embrace, but only if they are ready to adapt.