Business / Tech

Alphabet CEO backs temporary ban on facial recognition but Microsoft boss disagrees

by Foo Yun Chee and John Chalmers

Reuters

The European Union’s proposal for a temporary ban on facial recognition technology won backing from Alphabet Inc. Chief Executive Sundar Pichai on Monday but got a cool response from Microsoft Corp. President Brad Smith.

While Pichai cited the possibility that the technology could be used for nefarious purposes as a reason for a moratorium, Smith said a ban would be akin to using a meat cleaver instead of a scalpel to solve potential problems.

“I think it is important that governments and regulations tackle it sooner rather than later and give a framework for it,” Pichai told a conference in Brussels that was organized by the Bruegel think tank.

“It can be immediate, but maybe there’s a waiting period before we really think about how it’s being used,” he said. “It’s up to governments to chart the course” for the use of such technology.

Smith, who is also Microsoft’s chief legal officer, however, cited the benefits of facial recognition technology in instances such as nongovernment organizations using it to find missing children.

“I’m really reluctant to say let’s stop people from using technology in a way that will reunite families when it can help them do it,” Smith said.

“The second thing I would say is you don’t ban it if you actually believe there is a reasonable alternative that will enable us to, say, address this problem with a scalpel instead of a meat cleaver,” he said.

Smith said it is important to first identify problems and then craft rules to ensure that the technology won’t be used for mass surveillance.

“There is only one way at the end of the day to make technology better and that is to use it,” he said.

The European Commission is taking a tougher line on artificial intelligence than the United States that would strengthen existing regulations on privacy and data rights, according to a proposal paper not yet released.

Part of this includes a moratorium of up to five years on using facial recognition technology in public areas, to give the EU time to work out how to prevent abuses, the paper said.

Pichai urged regulators to take a “proportionate approach” when drafting rules, days before the EC is due to publish proposals on the issue.

Regulators are grappling with ways to govern AI, encouraging innovation while trying to curb potential misuse, as companies and law enforcement agencies increasingly adopt the technology.

There was no question AI needs to be regulated, Pichai said, but rule-makers should tread carefully.

“Sensible regulation must also take a proportionate approach, balancing potential harms with social opportunities,” he said. “This is especially true in areas that are high risk and high value.”

Regulators should tailor rules according to different sectors, Pichai said, citing medical devices and self-driving cars as examples that require different rules. He said governments should align their rules and agree on core values.

Earlier this month, the U.S. government published regulatory guidelines on AI aimed at limiting authorities’ overreach, and urged Europe to avoid an aggressive approach.

Pichai said it is important to be clear-eyed about what could go wrong with AI, and while it promises huge benefits there are real concerns about potential negative consequences.

One area of concern is “deepfakes” — video or audio clips that have been manipulated using AI. Pichai said Google has released open data sets to help the research community build better tools to detect such fakes.

The world’s most popular internet search engine said last month that Google Cloud is not offering general purpose facial recognition application programming interfaces (APIs) while it establishes policy and technical safeguards.

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