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Netherlands digital minister smacks down Big Tech over AI regs

Many people die in car crashes but we don’t outlaw cars, so bad AI might be OK, says Microsoft Asia president

Singapore's ATxSG conference has opened with a feisty encounter in which Microsoft's president for Asia argued that bad AI's worst effects - even deaths - may need to be tolerated.

Speaking on the event's opening panel in Singapore on Tuesday, Microsoft Asia president Ahmed Mazhari was teamed with the Netherlands' minister for digitalization Alexandra van Huffelen and Nvidia vice president Keith Strier.

Van Huffelen was the sceptic, with Mazhari and Strier happy to position the tech as being led by boundary-testing pioneers driving innovation and the economy in the face of wet blanket governments.

The politician laid out her philosophy from the start: Societies can only utilize the full opportunities tech bring if they trust it is safe. She defined the role of government as responsible for setting regulations and laying out penalties for those who break the rules.

Mazhari entered the ATxSG conversation defensively. "I want to remind the people here and those listening, that we've actually defined the principles of AI as far as back as 2016 or 2017," he said in his opening statement.

Mazhari then claimed that Microsoft was both willing and already participating with governments and institutions to ensure his company provides “the trust that [AI] technology deserves.”

That’s when things got awkward.

"It is interesting to hear that - before you may go further with this, because we presently see the technology that your company is now putting to market. You're a shareholder in OpenAI, which is actually not adhering to these principles yet, right?" Van Huffelen pointed out.

Mazhari conceded her point was "appropriate."

“At this point in time, there is no global body, there is no equivalent of the IAEA, for that matter and perhaps the world needs something,” said Mazhari, adding "the world would benefit from having some form of more international regulation."

The minister then highlighted that rules were being formed for AI in Europe, as well as in North America and other countries.

"But I mean, are you going to adhere to those rules?” said Van Huffelen, leading the Microsoft exec to respond that the software giant adheres to the rules of the jurisdiction it operates in.

Van Huffelen then spoke for every frustrated internet user in the room when she said she was often personally coerced into giving permission for the sharing of her information online because Big Tech does not give any other option, suggesting that tactics to comply were often underhanded with companies unwilling to abandon adversarial business motives.

“When I tried to use a certain social media platform, I have to read through something that I do not want to read through, or cannot read through - and say yes. That's what most people do,” explained the minister. "If you want to really protect people, make sure that only the data are used that they want to be used."

Strier ventured that there were many varying opinions on the current state of AI, with some experts seeing risks and others not. The Nvidia vice president regarded regulation as the foundation of solution, but not the only solution, as he advocated for professional standards, social norms that define boundaries, and education.

The panel drew parallels between AI and the automotive industry. Van Huffelen argued that using AI was like having an untested car on the road and "kind of scary."

Mazhari said thousands die in road accidents every day but car manufacturers are allowed to carry on.

"If we took cars away from the world – not sure what will happen to human productivity," said the exec.

"Are you saying people get killed from generative AI? I don’t know what to say," answered the minister. ®

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