Cross-disciplinary approach essential to develop frameworks for digital space, experts say

March 03, 2023 04:14 pm | Updated March 07, 2023 01:31 pm IST

Photo used for representational purpose only.

Photo used for representational purpose only. | Photo Credit: AFP

The Digital Society Initiative at the University of Zurich aims to develop a legal framework for AI to address the issues of protecting individuals and society from disadvantages due to algorithmic systems

Though the rapid pace of digitalisation coupled with the innovative application of Artificial Intelligence (AI) has provided efficient tools for the delivery of public goods, it has also thrown up a range of questions for stakeholders. A cross-disciplinary approach is needed to develop frameworks that protect democratic rights, experts say.

The Digital Society Initiative (DSI) at the University of Zurich reflects such an approach. The DSI network includes 900 members and over 200 professors, from the faculties of arts and social sciences, medicine, law, science, theology, veterinary medicine, business, economics and informatics. AI regulation is difficult and requires a truly cross-disciplinary expertise, says the DSI’s Prof. Karsten Donnay.

The initiative aims to develop a legal framework for AI by bringing together subject experts across diverse fields and key political executives, to address the issues of protecting individuals and society from disadvantages due to algorithmic systems. Recognisability and comprehensibility; discrimination; manipulation; liability and security have been identified as the core challenge areas.

Facial recognition and other remote biometric recognition procedures in public spaces, apart from social scoring to regulate access to basic resources, have been pointed out as problematic applications of AI.

Focus areas

During the recent visit of an Indian delegation to the university, organised by the Swiss Embassy in India in collaboration with Presence Switzerland, DSI co-director Claudia Witt said that the body focused on three topics: research, education and public relations. The 12 DSI communities do inter-disciplinary collaboration on specific areas: communication, cybersecurity, democracy, education, ethics, gaming, health, libraries, metaverse, mobility, sustainability and work.

The institution has presented papers and conducted workshops on legal frameworks for AI and its application in the field of medicine.

The University of Zurich has 26 active research collaborations with Indian institutions, including IIT-Bombay and IIT-Madras, and has 1,954 joint publications. There are 118 degree-seeking Indian students, three Indian professors and 106 Indian researchers at the university, besides 12 exchange students and 72 from other programmes.

Certifying ‘trust’

With the digitalisation of various sectors, the issue of “trust” has also gained importance. Fathi Derder of the Swiss Digital Initiative, Geneva, said that the organisation and its partners had developed the first Digital Trust Label that denotes the trustworthiness of a digital service. The label is issued after an audit based on 35 parameters.

Several prominent companies, including Swisscom and Credit Suisse, have now got their products labelled. The Digital Trust Label, according to its website, has now been expanded to Germany through Europe’s unicorn start-up wefox.

While the organisation plans to expand further to other parts of the world, during an interaction with the delegation, a professor from EPFL, Lausanne, expressed doubts over its efficacy in the long run given the fast technological changes, thus requiring frequent audits, and the high cost of audits. The cost of the certification process is expected between 22,000 and 45,000 Swiss Francs, depending on the complexity of the digital service. It is valid for 3 years and includes two quality checks during that period.

On the innovation front, ETH Zurich, which launches an average of 25 spin-off companies based on its research, has a joint Institute of Neuroinformatics with the University of Zurich. Besides, Switzerland Innovation Park Zurich’s Chief Executive Officer Corinna Eva Muller said that students from renowned institutions are brought together with leading companies and provided space and necessary assistance for pursuing their projects. One such group from ETH Zurich recently developed a four-seater battery-powered electric plane.

Strong India links

With regards to initiatives in India, a senior Swiss official said that 100 Swiss companies were currently manufacturing in the country and another 30 were involved in research and development. Switzerland is the 12th largest foreign investor in India and its investments amount to $10 billion. In 2021, it had recorded $1.9 billion import from India and $1.6 billion export to India.

A delegation led by Swiss State Secretary of Economic Affairs, Helene Budliger, had visited India a few days ago for talks on a Free Trade Agreement (FTA). “Switzerland, as part of European Free Trade Association (EFTA), is very keen to conclude a long-term FTA negotiation with success and this is my top priority, because there is great potential between the economic relationship with India and EFTA countries, in particular Switzerland,” she had said.

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