European commissioner for competition Margrethe Vestager shared optimism toward technology and said she sees “no limits in how artificial intelligence can support what we want to do as humans on society” at the Web Summit conference last week in Lisbon, Portugal.

Margrethe Vestager, known for her hard-line stance and once dubbed by U.S. President Donald Trump as Europe’s “tax lady”, made an impression when she forced Apple to repay $17 billion in taxes and fined Google a combined $9.5 billion for antitrust violations. Facebook and Amazon are also facing investigations across Europe.

At the Web Summit, Europe’s antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager discussed the future of technology and her priorities in regulating big tech companies to preserve a global competitive environment.

Margrethe Vestager, EU commissioner for competition, at Web Summit 2019 in Lisbon (Image: Web Summit)

Limitless AI benefits
Appointed to an unexpected second term as the EU’s competition commissioner, Vestager has just been given new powers. She will oversee EU digital policy, coordinate the work on a European approach to artificial intelligence and come with ethical and human-centered rules on artificial intelligence in the first 100 days of her mandate. Brussels, however, will be “very careful not to over-regulate” AI so as to maintain the same pace of innovation.

For that, she explained in her Web Summit talk, “the first thing we will do is listen very carefully to stakeholders everywhere, and we will try to listen fast because, as we are speaking, AI is developing.”

“That’s wonderful,” Vestager said. “Because I see no limits in how artificial intelligence can support what we want to do as humans. I think we can be much more effective in fighting climate change if we use AI.” Similarly, she continued, “I think we can save people awful, stressful waiting time between having been examined by a doctor and having the result of that examination, and maybe [obtain] more precise results in doing that.”

Regulating AI is “very tricky.” If the benefits of using AI have no limits, Europe’s antitrust enforcer said “we need to get in control of the cornerstones so that we can trust it, [and make sure] it has human oversight and, more importantly, it does not have biais.”

No big tech breakup
Having demanded billions of euros in fines from big tech companies, Vestager is surely one of the most feared people in Silicon Valley. Over the years, she has run high-profile investigations of almost every U.S. tech giant, and said on stage “I, of course, listen very, very closely when Mark Zuckerberg gives evidence.”

Asked if she has seen recent change in their behavior, Vestager said they all pursue higher ambitions. “If you look at Google’s new services being launched, if you look at Facebook’s Libra plans, if you look at Apple’s streaming services, you see bigger ambitions. This shows me that we have reached a phase where competition law enforcement can only do part of the job. We need to find the right level of democracy framing tech and say this is how you should serve us.”

The idea of breaking up tech giants is gaining popularity in the United States. Even President Trump said that “something is going on in terms of monopoly,” and “we are going to look at it.” Taking a different position, Vestager said that breaking up big tech conglomerates would not solve the problem. It would make sense if it is “the only solution to the illegal behavior, to the damage it has provoked,” but, “we don’t have a case like that right now.”

The second element of consideration, she said, is the company size in itself. “We should say that, when you become that big, you have a special responsibility, because you are the de facto rule setter in the market. We should be much more precise about what that entails, otherwise there is a risk that the many interesting companies have no chance of competing.”

Taking distance from the ongoing debate, Vestager said the problem with the people advocating for breakup is that they don’t have a model. “There is a risk that you do not solve the problem, and you just have many more problems.”

Building trust
Competition is beneficial rather than detrimental to society. Over the last ten years, Europe has developed a vibrant, dynamic startup community with scale-up potential, Vestager said. “If tech sort of gets to be something that is only embedded in giant companies, then it is beyond our democracies. I think we lose trust in technology, and part of my mission is that we build trust in technology by making sure that we can reach the potential and control the dark side.”

Despite her stern attitude toward Silicon Valley, Vestager said she has faith in technology and its ability to serve humans. “We need to understand what is going on, and to do that as a community,” applauding the United States for their renewed interest and engagement.

Resolute in pursuit of her goals, Vestager is also optimistic. “It’s a moral obligation,” she concluded. “Pessimists really never get anything done, because it is going to be worse tomorrow. So why bother.”