MCM 2019 Keynote address by Prime Minister Pellegrini
Dear Secretary General, dear Ministers, Ambassadors, distinguished guests, Ladies & Gentlemen,
I am delighted to open this year´s OECD Ministerial Council Meeting, which is taking place at a decisive cross-roads for policy-making, as our economies are becoming progressively more digitized, while the need for internationally coordinated policy approach is growing. Today and tomorrow, we will discuss how the digital transition can be harnessed for our brighter future, for economic growth, prosperity, well-being, and sustainable development.
I was a big fan of science fiction when growing up and I am now surprised by how some of the fascinating scenarios have become a reality. The promotional video of the Secretary General Mr Gurría and myself for the ongoing OECD Week in Paris, you have just seen, may resemble the famous scene from the cult sci-fi movie, the Matrix, to which I would like to refer by quoting Morpheus, one of the central characters of the movie:
„There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.”
And, this is precisely the challenge we must all address in the real world. We know that the digital revolution has been ongoing for some time, but we are still to pin down the concrete policy approaches.
The key focus we need to always bear in mind when talking about the very process of digital transformation is human beings. The nature of the relationship between people and technology is central in successfully steering the digital transition in the current era. We can imagine many future worlds, and as the science fiction genre has shown us, many of them can be dystopian. Technology can be a conqueror as easily as it can be our liberator. If the future is to be determined by our political choices, I would like to put humanity at the very centre of the digital transformation – after all, the digital revolution is here thanks to human progress and it should be addressed solely for the benefit of humanity.
Consequently, digital humanism needs to become a decisive philosophical orientation of the 21st century. Humanism, as such, emphasizes the value of human beings, individually and collectively. Digital humanism means that human beings remain the central focus in the digital transformation, while digitisation should be approached in its entirety and complexity for the improvement of people’s lives and the preservation of our planet. Digital humanism thus seeks to enable people to achieve things they never believed possible, empowered by the use of technologies, and it is our job – as policy-makers – that they do so, while respecting the law, ethics, fundamental freedoms, democratic principles and human rights.
I therefore very much appreciate and applaud the OECD and the work of its Members for setting the Guidelines on Artificial Intelligence. We need to know clearly who will be responsible when an algorithm causes an accident. We also need to prevent algorithms from discriminating against people on the basis of origin, gender, or race, biases that lay hidden in historical data. Let me add that on the basis of the Digital Transformation Strategy, which my Government has recently adopted, we are going to utilize artificial intelligence to improve the performance of public services in Slovakia. The AI Guidelines should serve for building trust in the digital economy, but this is just a first step on our long journey. Successful digital transformation requires the fundamental innovation of our institutions.
In this regard, I am compelled to ask you three questions to which, in my view, we need to find answers now and together, so we can walk the path towards a better future while living up to the ideals of digital humanism:
My first questions is: How can every man and woman contribute to building and shaping the bright digital future?
On the first of May, on Labour Day, we, the peoples, we celebrated the values of work around the world. However, it is coming… Automation and artificial intelligence are going to replace jobs, not just manual jobs but also white-collar ones. Professions such as accountants, auditors and clerks are also among the most vulnerable. According to the OECD estimates, Slovakia has one of the highest share of jobs at risk of automation. It is not even a secret that almost half of the tasks employees are paid for in developed economies could be automated by already existing technologies. How can people find dignity in the world where work will no longer be needed? Maybe schemes like universal basic income will help ease this problem. The most effective solution lies in the massive improvements of digital skills and education reforms.
Only those who understand how digital technologies work can be fully able to contribute, and only digitally skilled people can be able to realize their potential and fulfil their dreams in the digital age.
In order to ensure advanced digital skills for all citizens, it is necessary to accelerate the preparation for the digital transformation of education and lifelong learning – digital skills should be encouraged from the earliest age, considering the use of progressive digital technologies in the education process, including AI to enhance learning. In Slovakia, we want to introduce data science courses from the first grade in primary school. I have even seen methods to explain these principles in kindergarten!
Of course, we also need to adapt the rules of the labour markets to these digital times in order to allow appropriate and flexible social protection systems. We must ensure that the value created and all, which leads us to the second question that I would like to ask, can access the opportunities presented: How do we set the rules for businesses and adjust the taxation in the digital economy, and also, how do we devise enabling social protection systems?
I see the answer in data. Data has become an absolutely crucial production factor. Those, that are able to collect and retain large amounts of data have also the best algorithms and thus can provide most useful services. There is, however, undisputable evidence of concentration stemming from the “winner takes it all” dynamics, pronounced by dominant platforms, posing potential challenges for competition policy. In addition, the changes emanating from the digital transition, and resurfacing in our economies and societies, have also highlighted the out-dated tax rules. This leads us to rethink them and to try to find a systematic approach. Another option, which needs to be carefully considered is “data as labour”. The idea is that data provided by people should be seen as a building block of labour that empowers technology, mainly AI. In other words, people should fully control their data, and the digital monopolies should pay people for using them. We need to understand that without millions of people feeding algorithms with data, there will not be any value. Moreover, I would be delighted to see further progress towards a global consensus on whether and how to tax businesses with a substantial digital footprint but no physical presence in a jurisdiction. I believe that only a common global framework can bring rules that minimize the possibility for unfair tax distribution and award the economies where value is created.
And, my third and final question: What is the role of the government itself?
Perhaps, artificial intelligence can surprise us one day by also replacing politicians. Imagine a world where political decisions are made on the basis of data and facts, on the basis of accurate knowledge of the needs and preferences of the millions. Who can represent you better than a personal assistant in a mobile phone? Obviously, it will not be that simple. I believe that many of the government's functions can be streamlined and automated, thanks to novel technologies: we will be able to track the effects of each law in real-time, our tax returns will be handled by chatbots and building permits will be issued automatically.
I believe the main role of the government should be in the system design. This framework needs to be future proof. I mean the system must be set up to ensure justice and opportunities for all. Another equally important role of the state is to guarantee that new solutions are safe and secure.
It is not the first time we, humans, face the arrival of new technologies whose unintended consequences made us take precautions. Let me go back in time a bit. In the 19th century, industrialization brought new ways of production and transportation, but it also involved accidents, pollution and new types of weapons. It was similar in the 20th century with nuclear energy. Computer networks that changed the functioning of economy in the 1990s were initially built spontaneously and for a different purpose. These networks still suffer from enormous vulnerabilities. We should learn from this and make security a leading factor in AI design from the very beginning. Strong and efficient cyber-security should become a predefault “must” element.
The ultimate goal of the successful digital transformation is happiness and satisfaction for the entire humanity built on respecting our common values. It is upon us, the political leaders, to enable the right conditions to achieve it. It will be hard without a joint action and intensive cooperation between our nations and states. Therefore, I wish to especially thank, the OECD for providing us with this unique platform that enables us to discuss the opportunities and challenges of digital transformation, share the best practices and contemplate the most suitable policy approaches how all the people can benefit from the digital revolution.
So, let’s all step together into the light and choose the future!
Thank you very much for your attention!