Artificial intelligence report

Digital Minister Dara Calleary TD: ‘Policymakers must focus on AI beyond election cycles’

Minister of State for Trade Promotion, Digital and Company Regulation, Dara Calleary TD sits down with Ciarán Galway to outline the Government’s priorities in relation to AI regulation, the European context, and a vision for the future role of AI technology in Ireland.

Ciarán Galway (CG): In August 2022, you were appointed as Minister of State for Trade Promotion, Digital and Company Regulation at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, what are your reflections since then?

Dara Calleary (DC): We were in a good space having the [AI: Here for Good] strategy since September 2021. I want to commend [my predecessor] Robert Troy TD and the officials here in the Department for being that farsighted. We had the fantastic National Youth Assembly on AI in October 2022. We did the first Digital Ireland Conference at the end of November 2022 where we got a lot of the stakeholders together in Dublin Castle. Then ChatGPT appeared. It is not that it changed anything, but it just brought huge focus and has brought it into the mainstream.

We have been very consistent that the principles of the strategy – trustworthy, person-centred, and ethical – still apply. We have had to keep people focused on that message, and keep people focused on delivering on the strategy.

We are nearly signing off on the EU AI Act. Our officials are very involved in that. The fact that we were one of only six countries to be asked to the AI Safety Summit in Bletchley Park [Milton Keynes, UK] last November [2023] is a testament to our standing within the international AI community.

Then, just in the last few weeks, we have stood up the AI Advisory Council, which I am really excited about. It is going to be independent; effectually to hold the feet of any government to the fire in relation to AI and also future technologies. There are 14 really experienced people on it; many global experts, all of whom are Irish. That is a good testament to the country.

So what are we to do? Skills is going to be my big focus. We are going to be working with Minister Simon Harris TD over in the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science on that. We had the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs identify the skills [required] in spring 2022 and we still have multiple courses across third and fourth level, but also – very importantly for me – across community education, in AI skills.

“Every [government] department is beginning to look at it [AI technology] and advance it.” Minister of State for Trade Promotion, Digital and Company Regulation,
Dara Calleary TD

CG: What are some examples of the opportunities that AI present to improve the delivery of public services and to assist in tackling many of the complex societal challenges?

DC: There are massive opportunities. We are beginning to use it across the agencies in this department [DETE] in terms of form filling and signing, and data and record management. Everything we are doing is with those key principles in mind: public trust and people centred. For instance, it could be massively used in the Companies Registration Office (CRO). Any company reading your interview knows the level of form filling that goes on there.

Healthcare has enormous potential. There is a really exciting project underway with Dell and UL [University of Limerick] around AI cancer care. Meanwhile, CeADAR – one of the national EDIHs [European Digital Innovation Hubs] for AI – in UCD is doing work on how AI technology can be used to predict future flooding trends.

Every [government] department is beginning to look at it [AI technology] and advance it. Minister Ossian Smyth TD is in this space, so we work closely together on AI and how it can be utilised in the public service, in line with the strategy and in line with our aims, but also how we can use it innovatively.

CG: To what extent is government’s vision for AI defined by its existence as a tool for assisting humans rather than replacing humans?

Credit: Department of Enterprise Trade and Employment

DC: I do not want people to be replaced, I want their skills to be enhanced. That is why we are so focused on skills. So, yes, it is going to change the way we do work. Equally, every technology does, and I am not being complacent here. Look how vibrant the tech sector is here [in Ireland] at the moment. We are only marking 20 years of Facebook [week beginning 5 February 2024] and now it is a multi-thousand employer in Dublin. Google similarly.

At the end of the day, the public service, for instance, is there to serve citizens, and if we can deliver services more efficiently to citizens and give citizens a better experience of public services then everybody wins.

CG: How has government sought to ensure ethical and responsible use of AI in public service delivery?

DC: The EU AI Act is a good signpost in relation to that. What that has looked at is what the risks are and has designated things that are high risk, medium risk, low risk, and things that are unacceptable; that are not allowed, for instance, emotion recognition technology. High risk is in health and in law enforcement; the really stringent compliance requirements. Medium risks are transparency requirements. Low risk means minimal if any restrictions.

If we get agreement in parliament – I do not want to assume EU Parliament agreement – in the next two months, then we will start the rollout of it. Subject to parliament agreement, it will enter into force probably in the early summer and then we have about 36 months to actually get it into place. [While it is] 36 months or three years, we will be doing an awful lot of it in the first 18 months. It builds the guardrails, it is accessible, and people will know what is allowed in terms of what is high risk, what is medium risk, what is low risk, and what is unacceptable in terms of the technology.

CG: To what extent is there a potential for AI to produce or amplify inequitable or undesirable outcomes for individuals and communities?

DC: That is something that I am very focused on and very conscious of. I do not want it to amplify existing inequalities, I want it to be used to break down barriers. That is why we are working closely with Minister Ossian Smyth in terms of public services. I see it making the delivery of healthcare much fairer. When you see the waiting lists for healthcare, it is people on lower incomes that are on the waiting list or waiting longer. I see using AI and getting access to technologies as having the potential make it far more equal. AI technologies have the potential, if used properly, and there is a strategy in place like ours, to open up all sorts of opportunities for every citizen.

CG: How can public service bodies best prepare for the forthcoming EU AI Act?

DC: Once it is signed off, and once we have the final version of it, we will be rolling out our briefing. We have worked closely with the agencies here in the Department to make sure that the Act is in good standing. Now that we have it, we have three years to prepare. The main elements will be in place within two. We will be rolling out a pretty ambitious briefing programme as to what is allowed. We also, at some stage this year – the reason I have not got a timeline on it is that we want to get the Act passed at EU level – will run a public information campaign on AI; what it is, what it can do for you, and making people aware of it. People are using it every day. I think that is one thing that people forget about. If you engage with a chatbot, that is AI.

“Every party should lay out their stall on AI and how they see it being utilised over the course of the next five years.”

CG: Speaking with eolas Magazine in late 2023, Government CIO Barry Lowry referenced the challenge policymakers face in attempting to regulate AI amid a rapid pace of
evolution. To what extent do you recognise that challenge?

DC: I recognise it, because it [AI technology] is moving quickly and we have so many other things going on as public representatives. That is why we have the AI Advisory Council, and that is why it is going to be independent of government. That is why I think it is important that we [policymakers] all take time to consider it [AI].

I know there are proposals – it is above my paygrade – that there will be an AI committee in the Oireachtas. I think they [the proposals] are worth pursuing but that is a matter for the Oireachtas to decide.

One of the things that I notice in the discourse is that there is a lot of focus on AI in elections; obviously, in the context of forthcoming European elections, everyone is talking about AI in the election campaign. I would like to see people focus on AI after the election. So, what is the policy platform for the next European Parliament? What is the policy mandate for the next European Commission? We have the AI Act, so what are going to do?

Equally, in the context of the next general election in this country – whenever it happens over the course of the next 12 months – let’s focus on AI policy as well as AI as a campaigning tool.

Every party should lay out their stall on AI and how they see it being utilised over the course of the next five years.

CG: Ireland’s AI Ambassador role was established under Strand 1 of AI: Here for Good. What is the remit of that role?

DC: I have described it as talking plain language about AI that people can access. The great thing about [AI Ambassador] Patricia Scanlon is that she comes from a very successful AI background, but she can explain the concepts in a language that people can understand.

I have heard a lot of her interviews and her ability to put that across to people is excellent. We did a fantastic event with about 75 teenagers – the National Youth Summit on AI – that she spoke at, and she was brilliant in the way she interacted and the way she picked up on their thoughts and their concerns.

She is the national AI Ambassador and continues to be. Separate from that role, she is the chair of the AI Advisory Council. She has put huge work into getting the membership of that council right, into getting the dynamics right, and I know they are working hard now to get it up and running.

CG: In January 2024, the AI Advisory Council met for the first time. How will the establishment of the AI Advisory Council bridge the gap between the public and an understanding of AI, which can ultimately lead to a better understanding of AI by decision-makers?

DC: We had just under 400 applications to be on it [the advisory council]. There is an extraordinary level of talent on AI within the country.

It is going to offer strong advice. It is going to offer independent advice. I met the Advisory Council, but I did not sit in on their meeting because have been very clear, we want it to be independent.

I would ask policymakers to listen to what the Advisory Council comes up with and to engage with the work it is going to produce. I see it as having an ESRI style role, without the budget, in terms of advice and issues. They are all voluntary and we are terribly lucky to have them.

Part of the role is to engage in communication, and I want them to demystify it [AI technology] and come back to the principles: is it trustworthy; is it person-centred; is it ethical? In terms of the communications campaign, they will have a role in advising that as well. But I want them to focus on policy as well, focused on the specific challenges of it. Ultimately, they are in charge of their own workplan which will then be given to government for sign off.

CG: Upon the news that the EU AI Act was endorsed by all member states in February 2024 and will enter into force in the coming months, you reiterated your ambition for Ireland to “become a leading country in using AI to the benefit of our people”. What does that look like?

DC: Healthcare. Education. General government services. That we have an innovation culture as well. As the new products and new services come out of Ireland, it is important that we have sandboxed structures in place here for AI companies to test technologies and future uses. That our citizens have trust in AI and that our citizens benefit from the AI Act, but equally our innovators are confident in producing the new products on the island here.

CG: What are your ambitions for the year ahead?

DC: Our focus at the moment is the DSA, it has been since Christmas. I want to get the communications campaign up and running AI, and to make sure that the Advisory Council gets bedded in.
Ireland is the current chair of the D9+ Group [an informal alliance of digital ministers from the digital frontrunner EU member states]. We are hosting the D9+ events in Dublin in the middle of April 2024, so we are preparing for that at the moment.

As I said, there will be elections across Europe on the weekend of 7 June 2024, but I also want to see discussion on the digital priorities for the next five years in Europe, not just the next five months.

CG: How can Fianna Fáil stamp its identity on the coalition government’s digital policy?

DC: Firstly, it [digital policy] is government, and it is cross-government. I have mentioned two of my colleagues – Simon Harris and Ossian Smyth – from the two other coalition parties. That is why I am challenging my colleagues in Fianna Fáil to focus on the policy implications of AI and of digital.

I am very determined that in the course of our next Fianna Fáil election manifesto, it will have a digital policy element. I have been really focused. We have made changes through [Finance Minister] Michael McGrath TD in terms of the taxation around angel investors. We had a really good Fianna Fáil session with members of the start-up community and business organisations, with Michael McGrath, ahead of the budget [2024] where he heard their proposals directly from them and they were implemented in the budget.

Equally, I am gathering a lot of ideas and thoughts that will be in a Fianna Fáil digital manifesto at the next election. I am very focused. We are all focused on campaigning with AI and what AI will do to campaigns. Let’s focus on governing. Where will AI go in the next five years?

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