Axel Voss: “We could have been bolder”

The CDU politician Axel Voss is the rapporteur of the AIDA special committee.

“Whoever leads in AI also leads the world. That is why we cannot afford to lag behind,” says Axel Voss (59), rapporteur in the Special Committee on Artificial Intelligence in the Digital Age (AIDA) in the EU Parliament.

The report of the AIDA Special Committee was adopted yesterday in the European Parliament with a large majority. The report focuses on the EU’s competitiveness in digital markets and how it can be promoted. For example, it identifies policy options that could unleash the potential of AI in the areas of health, environment, and climate change to fight pandemics and world hunger and improve people’s quality of life through personalized medicine.

AI, when combined with the necessary support infrastructure, education, and training, can boost capital and labor productivity, innovation, sustainable growth, and job creation, the report says.

Warning against Europe as a digital colony

In the plenary session of the EU Parliament, Voss was not completely satisfied with the finished report. This is because many of his original demands were weakened, in some cases considerably, in the compromise version that was adopted. “We have achieved a lot,” said Voss during the debate in the plenary. However, “We could have been bolder or even revolutionary.”

AI is the key technology of the future and of high strategic relevance. Europe must ask itself how it intends to keep up with other regions of the world “that are advancing research and development far more consistently and in a more targeted manner, that are training talent, that are putting a lot of money into it, and that can react more flexibly to new developments.” Voss issued an urgent warning against Europe becoming a “digital colony” of such regions whose values it does not share.

Voss describes Europe’s task in the field of AI as follows: “It’s a major challenge to integrate values and remain competitive.” He generally believes that the potential of AI is not being exploited enough: “We are now too intimidated by data protection, because no one wants to be accused of not handling data properly. And that leads to a lot of things not being done that would make sense.”

Face recognition, but no Alexa

In his private life, he uses facial recognition on his iPhone. However, Voss doesn’t want to put Amazon’s Alexa or similar Home Spots in his living room: “I’ll hold back a bit on that. I’d maybe take something from Telekom.”

Voss would have liked to discuss the planned regulation on AI (AI Act) in the Legal Affairs Committee as the lead committee. However, responsibility for this regulation was given to the Committees for Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) and Internal Market (IMCO). “The AI Act answers the question of how we as a society want to deal with algorithms.” That has nothing specifically to do with either fundamental rights or the internal market, but is “something ethical, and that’s just up to the Legal Affairs Committee,” Voss said.

He has been a Member of the European Parliament since 2009. In 2017, he became coordinator of the EPP Group in the Legal Affairs Committee. In his parliamentary work, the focus is on digital issues. “It wasn’t planned that way at all,” he says. His curiosity was piqued in the course of the discussion on data protection law: “I wanted to approach things in a more practical way.”

Surprised by the hate

For the General Data Protection Regulation, Voss was shadow rapporteur for the EPP Group. Later, he was the rapporteur for the Copyright Directive. And suddenly the name “Axel Voss” was a well-known name to young people. The discussion about upload filters in the context of Article 13 (later Article 17) caused protest on the net and in the streets at the beginning of 2019. “I didn’t foresee this wave of outrage at all,” Voss recalls. He had perceived copyright as a niche for experts. “I was surprised by the hatred that came, even though you’re actually just balancing fundamental rights against each other.”

As a lawyer, he knows his way around the law. He studied law in Trier, Freiburg, and Munich. He doesn’t see the fact that he has a legal background and not a technical one as a problem: “Of course, you have to look at the effects of what you’re doing differently in a digital world than in a non-digital world. You need an understanding of problems, but you don’t necessarily have to know what’s going on technically.”

Voss commutes between Bonn and Brussels. During the pandemic, he travels the distance by car, but otherwise, he also likes to take the train. Why he is convinced of the relevance of decisions about the digital realm? “Realities manifest themselves through technology. You get that over time.” Paula Faul/Eugenie Ankowitsch

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