Switzerland takes a ‘tech neutral’ approach to AI regulations

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All around the world governments are rushing to develop, deploy, and subsequently regulate high-level artificial intelligence (AI) systems. 

Over the last year, the European Union passed the world’s first comprehensive set of regulations for AI, while leaders in the United States have released executive orders for AI safety standards.

Another major voice on AI policy on a global scale is Switzerland, which is steadily making strides in understanding its own AI at home as well. 

The country is already known for its tech-forward stance in blockchain and cryptocurrency and also has one of the world’s top-tier AI research institutions, ETH Zurich. However, Switzerland is not part of the EU, and therefore, its citizens are not subject to the EU AI Act in the same way the neighboring countries are.

So what is the Swiss approach to regulating one of the world’s most controversial technologies?

Cointelegraph spoke to Ayisha Piotti, Head of Switzerland’s Annual AI Policy Summit, and Alexander Brunner, an advisor to AI, Blockchain, and Web3 companies in Switzerland, to better understand the country’s take on AI.

Stable Democracy and Innovation Hub

Switzerland has gained a reputation for being a tech-savvy nation — it is home to the infamous Crypto Valley, which has become the global epicenter for blockchain technology. 

Piotti attributes this to Switzerland’s stable direct democracy, its outstanding academic institutions, and a culture characterized by inclusiveness and transparent dialogue.

“Dialogue is very important for us, we are a direct democracy. We cannot just make laws, we have to make sure that the people are with us and they understand. That’s ingrained in our DNA as well. We said this is important for AI adoption, but also for us to make any legislation.”

She emphasized that this foundation supports the country’s integration of AI, especially within the business sector.

Brunner stressed that Switzerland’s AI research competence and ETH Zurich have been praised across the board by figures like Yann LeCun, the “godfather of AI” and head of AI at Meta.

“Switzerland’s research prowess has put it at the top in 13 consecutive years of the UN Intellectual Property Organization. Therefore, crypto and AI share the same dedication to innovation and research.”

On being tech-neutral 

Switzerland is renowned globally not only for its technological advancements, but also for its neutrality.

Switzerland’s neutral and diplomatic stance significantly influences its approach to AI governance and international collaboration.

Piotti and Brunner both described the country’s approach as “tech-neutral,” with the former saying that it didn’t want to implement a regulation on a technology specifically.

“We wanted to look at the technology in a certain use case, and then fill in the gap regarding legislation. This, essentially, then leads you to a sector-specific approach and not a very big horizontal EU AI Act. We are not targeting the technology.”

Related: Former OpenAI, Anthropic employees call for ‘right to warn’ on AI risks

Brunner echoed this sentiment saying the Swiss government is over the opinion of updating existing laws rather than creating a “technology-specific” framework. He said the government is currently conducting a thorough analysis of the impact of AI.

“Carefully balancing sensible regulation with strong research is the foundation of Switzerland’s success. As the world’s freest country, Switzerland offers the freedom to innovate. Innovation needs freedom to be creative!”

Not in the EU but close

Its neutrality also comes in on an international level as well, as Brunner highlighted how Switzerland is regarded as a “trusted moderator.” He said, “we take this responsibility very seriously.”

“Even though we are a small country, we want to have a big share of voice when it comes to international forums, and that’s our history as well,” Piotti said. “We want to be actively involved to shape the policy around AI going forward.”

She also said that while they’re not in the EU, Switzerland is in the center of it making the EU AI Act still “very relevant” to them.

“If our businesses want to operate within the EU, we must comply. But also because generally with GDPR and many other legislations coming out of the EU, there is always this Brussels effect to then be adopted by parts of the world.”

Switzerland has a long and proud tradition of collaboration with international organizations, many headquartered in Geneva.

Brunner provided the example of the Council of Europe, where Switzerland is leading the AI working group with participation from 46 member states, including the US and Japan. “Collaboration is Switzerland’s superpower,” he said.

“We have an outsized voice despite our lack of size. This is highly important in a polarized global political environment.”

By adopting a tech-neutral and pragmatic approach to AI regulation Switzerland continues to reinforce its position at the forefront of AI innovation but also enables it to significantly influence global AI policy. 

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