AI Now co-Executive Director Amba Kak was invited to provide a keynote address at the German Green Party’s ‘Shaping AI’ conference on April 19. The following are her remarks:

Thank you so much for inviting AI Now to share our thoughts at this conference. My vision for AI is a world in which AI is a means to public benefit, not an end in itself. It’s to unlock true innovation that works for the many, not the few. But how do we achieve this vision?

I’ll make three main points in my remarks today:

First, that AI as we understand it today is a product of concentrated power in the American tech industry.

Any claims that AI startups make about their competitiveness – whether they are American, or European – are likely overblown. The reality is that US and Chinese-based tech companies still control core AI infrastructure for both development and deployment: compute, data, talent, and importantly – access to capital and markets.

As a result, AI startups can succeed, but currently they cannot compete directly with the US big tech AI firms. In fact, many European AI start-ups will only end up entrenching the power of Big Tech -especially when the goal is either acquisition, or a close encumbered partnership with one of the large US cloud infrastructure providers.

Why are US companies in such a position of dominance? The root cause is actually at the heart of what the Federal Trade Commission, America’s primary federal consumer and competition agency, calls “commercial surveillance”. Thanks to a lack of US regulation on data protection and competition, dominant companies could establish their position on the backs of the surveillance business model. This gave the US tech industry free reign to violate privacy, and created the template for the rest of the world.

Which brings me to my second point, if this current paradigm of large scale AI is inextricably linked to the dominance of a handful of companies, and an insatiable appetite for data and energy consumption then it’s a good moment to ask: why should we embrace AI at all?

The answer is clear: we need to make AI a means, not the end in itself. The end needs to be public benefit and then the question becomes: what innovation, directions, and culture will get us there? What role, if any, should AI play?

Right now, AI is being pushed as a solution in search of its problem across education, healthcare, government benefits allocation– often assuming the investments in AI take precedence over other approaches or values: do efficiencies gained through AI-based climate modeling really justify the energy cost of training these models? Should we invest in AI in education or simply invest in more teachers, or AI medical software over funding nurses and staff who work in care homes? In many cases the answers will be to prioritize investment in social services and sustainability initiatives, rather than tools like AI have routinely and historically been used across the world to justify austerity measures that disenfranchise the public.

My final point: we also need to actively shape the future of AI to work for the public interest: Right now, the most important task for Europe is to rigorously implement and adopt the AI Act, the DMA and DSA, and data protection regulations – all of which can challenge the hegemony of Big Tech and unbridled commercial surveillance.

Europe also needs to think more proactively, rather than reactively: by investing in what we call public interest AI industrial policy. If we play the game by Big Tech’s rules, we are doomed to lose, given the concentration of capital and resources in their domain.

The solution is also not merely to create European national champions instead, rather to invest in a decentralized, and resilient national innovation ecosystem that goes where the current AI industry is not incentivized to go on its own

We cannot leave our technological future, and the shape of our social and economic institutions, in the hands of US Big Tech, whose vision is culturally narrow and homogenous and who are ultimately beholden to shareholders. Happy, this future is not inevitable–if we can muster the will and the creativity to shape it differently. Europe is perfectly positioned to lead here, and we are committed to offering what insights we can to assist in this extraordinarily important endeavor.

With inputs from Frederike Kaltheuner, Sarah Myers West, and Meredith Whittaker.