How does society perceive Artificial Intelligence (AI) and what do people expect from it? Is AI seen as a major force that will change global power dynamics or is it perceived as a solution to the main problems that society face today like climate change and poverty? These are some of the questions explored in the recent publications from my research programme on governance, politics and policy of AI, analysing how policy documents from Europe and the United States frame AI, its purpose and recommendations to govern it.  

'Dr. Inga Ulnicane giving talk on Responsible AI at the HBP workshop at Karolinska Institute. Photo credits: HBP Education
Dr. Inga Ulnicane giving talk on Responsible AI at the HBP workshop at Karolinska Institute. Photo credits: HBP Education

Revolution, Transformation & Disruption

In our recent chapter ‘Governance of Artificial Intelligence: Emerging International Trends and Policy Frames’ (Ulnicane et al 2022), we found that one of the dominant frames of AI depicts it as a revolutionary, transformative and disruptive technology. AI is associated with potential and promises to revolutionise the way we live, work and learn. The major impacts of AI are expected across all sectors including transport, health, education, defence and research. In policy discussions, many impacts of this transformative and disruptive technology are hyped, described in superlatives and expected to be very positive, for example, promising improvements in transport and health. However, transformation and disruption also raise concerns, for example, about the future of jobs and welfare state. The talk about revolution and transformation highlights the urgency to consider political and policy implications of AI and to reflect on its ethical and social aspects.

Occasionally, in policy discussions AI is compared to previous transformative technologies and revolutions like steam engine, electricity and industrial revolutions. Sometimes it is discussed as a part of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution, characterized by convergence of new physical, digital and biological technologies. 

AI & Europe as a power

How does the European Union (EU) position itself in these discussions about AI? My recent chapter ‘Artificial Intelligence in the European Union: Policy, ethics, and regulation’ (Ulnicane 2022a) examines the EU’s stance on AI by using the two concepts from Europe as a power debate in European studies, namely Normative Power Europe and Market Power Europe. The concept of Normative Power Europe focuses on how the EU aims to increase its global influence by diffusing its norms and values enshrined in its Treaties like human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law. The concept of the Market Power Europe highlights that the EU’s global power largely stems from regulating access to its large common market.

Analysing the EU’s rhetoric on AI, I found a strong focus on Normative Power Europe, as exemplified by its attempts to promote its human-centric and value-based approach and its ethics guidelines for Trustworthy AI globally. This approach is closely connected to the EU’s attempts to be a Market Power with appropriate regulation of AI, which is based on the EU’s values and norms. However, the EU’s activities to promote an approach to AI based on its values have received not only appreciation, but also criticism for potential ‘ethics washing’ and instrumentalising ethics to promote business interests.

AI for global race or societal challenges?

In Europe and elsewhere, recent advances in AI have revived an old rhetoric of a global technology race, where some countries are depicted as winners while others worry about lagging behind. A well-known historical example of this rhetoric is the space race of the 20th century between the two then super-powers – the United States (US) and the Soviet Union. Today AI development has sometimes been pictured as a new space race or cold war between the US and China. In my recent publication ‘Against the new space race: global AI competition and cooperation for people’ (Ulnicane 2022b), I highlight some problematic aspects of this rhetoric. The new space race rhetoric can be damaging because it depicts the global development of AI as a zero-sum game, where one country wins and others loose. It can also prioritize political support for the development of prestigious new technologies over addressing social issues.

This leads to the question – what is the purpose of the development and use of AI, which I examine in my recent article ‘Emerging technology for economic competitiveness or societal challenges? Framing purpose in Artificial Intelligence policy’ (Ulnicane 2022c). To do that, I use two stylized technology policy frames – the traditional frame of economic competitiveness and a more recent one of societal challenges. A lot of recent AI policy is focused on a very traditional idea about supporting technology development as a way to promote national economic competitiveness. These ideas are well-known since the second half of the 20th century, when France was worried about the ‘American challenge’, the US was concerned about the ‘Japanese challenge’, the EU was worried about the technology gap with the US and so on. While as pointed out earlier, this obsession with economic competitiveness and a global race is problematic in many ways, this rhetoric remains very popular.

Additionally, in AI policy discussions we also see the more recent frame of societal challenges, which perceives technology as a way to address the so-called Grand challenges in areas such as environment, health and energy and to contribute to the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. However, in policy debates AI is sometimes presented as a simple technological fix to these complex and uncertain social problems. Moreover, the question of compatibility of different goals of AI contributing to economic competitiveness as well as societal challenges is largely overlooked and needs more reflection.

The main results from these publications have been shared in several blog posts on economic competitiveness and Grand Challenges and on AI and Europe. They have also been discussed in several talks like this recent HBP Tea & Slides session ‘Towards Responsible Artificial Intelligence’. If you would like to join the discussion, please register for the upcoming AI talk organized by the European Trade Union Institute on 7 February ‘The politics of purpose: Artificial Intelligence for global race or grand challenges?

Dr. Inga Ulnicane is Senior Research Fellow at De Montfort University, UK. Her research interests focus on politics, policy and governance of science, technology and innovation. She has published on topics such as Artificial Intelligence, Grand Challenges, European integration in research, and dual use.


Ulnicane, I. (2022a) ‘Artificial Intelligence in the European Union: policy, ethics and regulation’, in T. Hoerber, I. Cabras and G. Weber (Eds) Routledge Handbook of European Integrations, Routledge, pp.254-269. 

Ulnicane, I. (2022b) Against the new space race: global AI competition and cooperation for people. AI & Society

Ulnicane, I. (2022c) Emerging technology for economic competitiveness or societal challenges? Framing purpose in Artificial Intelligence policy. Global Public Policy and Governance 2(3): 326-345.

Ulnicane, I., W.Knight, T.Leach, B.C.Stahl and W.G. Wanjiku (2022) ‘Governance of Artificial Intelligence: Emerging international trends and policy frames’, in M.Tinnirello (Ed.) The Global Politics of Artificial Intelligence. CRC Press, pp.29-55.

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