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Mercator Senior Fellowship on AI Governance: first month, first insights

by Julia Reinhardt

September 1, 2022

It’s been a month since I started my year as SeniorFellow of Stiftung Mercator GmbH at AI Campus Berlin. A month full of insights, new encounters, introductions, more introductions, and a first INTENSE glimpse of what is discussed differently from the US in Germany in the sector of tech & society & AI governance. 


Above all, deep gratefulness for being welcomed so warmly by Rasmus RotheAdrian LocherJanette WigetSif Björnsdóttir and Arantxa Gomez at AI Campus Berlin and by Lars Zimmermann and Maximilian Maxa at GovTech Campus Deutschland

They keep opening doors for me, including me in meetings, and offering me useful advice for a #berlin returnee/newbie (10 years have changed the city and work culture so much!). At the same time, my workplace offers some daily taste of #siliconvalley (even the obligatory pingpong table is there now) so I don’t feel homesick.

Carla Hustedt at Stiftung Mercator and her team made all this possible, and it was therefore a sheer pleasure to meet everyone, including Chairman of the Executive Board Dr Wolfgang Rohe, in person at the Stiftung’s Sommerfest in Essen last week.

A random sample of first insights:


-       Discussions with AI developing folks about the planned European AI Act show more background info than in the US, obviously, since we’re much closer to Brussels here. Some organizations I spoke with had submitted comments to the European Commission White Paper already in summer 2020, which made it easy for me to track their position and have a fruitful and detailed discussion of pros and cons of the draft regulation. This is not to say that US-based organizations have per se less insights on EU plans, by far not, often their knowledge is more in-depth and more educated thanks to dedicated resources. But in Berlin, the EU regulatory know-how is more horizontally spread, and more word-to-mouth has happened in the AI community since the draft regulation was tabled in Brussels. However, this also means that misunderstandings and exaggerated interpretations are also more horizontally spread, and that’s an interesting field of action for me.


-       SME: Small and medium-sized AI companies are the majority of my contacts here when looking at industry. That is due to the focus of my project, but also because the big AI builders are (sadly) not headquartered in Europe. This interestingly leads to much more overlap of positions between SME companies in the AI field and data rights activists. I had hoped for that, honestly. I want to highlight and better define and explain that overlap in the coming months, in order to build coalitions that we urgently need: to fight monopolization (which is not good for consumers and our civil rights faced with AI) and to push for diversity in the AI field. And in the end hopefully influence AI regulation in a way that makes it easier to implement and have impact.

-       I was hence delighted to join the German AI Association (KI-Verband) as an expert member this month. A deliberate step after my super in-depth discussion with its managing director Vanessa Cann. Although this is a private-sector interest-driven association of AI industry in Germany, I feel that there is a lot of openness and curiosity to discuss governance models, AI policies that benefit society (and not just a company’s bottom line) and to direct me to interesting sources and insights. I look forward to engaging with members through Slack, internal meetings and events during the year. 

-       My first public appearance as Senior Fellow was at Woche this week. Thank you, Petra Vorsteher of AI.HAMBURG for the kind invitation! Tobias Straube interviewed me and turned my keynote on their international day into a really interesting, both critical and constructive conversation about AI governance, principles, practice, and we align both in the best possible way. 

-       GovTech Campus Germany is like Grand Central Station in terms of who I run into every day. This is the place to be for everyone in government and public sector interested in unlocking the potential of technology. I enjoy every encounter and admire how much has been transformed since I left public service years ago. The Campus also attracts publicly funded initiatives like Fiona Krakenbürger’s on open source infrastructure, whose work I find super insightful. And yes, I was portrayed in front of that famous concrete wall on my second day sur place…

-       Finally, I’m gathering a list of impressive tech & society non-profits and digital rights activists I want to reach out to as my next step. #EuropeanAIFund’s Catherine Miller and my all-round resource Peter Bihr have been of great help already. Lucky coincidence that #DataNatives is happening right now in Berlin and @CarolineLair of #TheGoodAI promises to reunite a bunch of interesting folks tonight – let’s go!

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