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Ekaterina Zaharieva: We must use artificial intelligence for a more peaceful, humane and prosperous world.

27 January 2021 Events and Discussions

Opening address of the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs to the participants in the online seminar “Digital Economy and Artificial Intelligence. Creating the digital future of Bulgaria.”

Dear Mr.Knudsen,

Your Excellencies,

Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for organizing this seminar, which will discuss the progress of our country in the field of digitalization and the benefits of using artificial intelligence, as well as the risks associated with it.

The coronavirus pandemic is the topic that dominates every discussion and debate because it has changed our worldview. It took away the most basic human need, namely to communicate with each other. However, thanks to the bitter experience of the socio-economic consequences of the pandemic, we have realized the invaluable opportunities that digitalization offer us. When we were isolated at home, away from our loved ones, away from the workplace, it was digital technology that helped our societies continue to function and people communicate freely. We ordered food from our phones, made video calls to see our loved ones, and work and study from home became the norm.

The topic of the role of technology, the transformation of the economy and artificial intelligence has never been higher on the agenda. The introduction of technology into our lives is not an end in itself, but a tool that we can use with the best of intentions to continue to build a more peaceful, humane and prosperous world.

Of course, new technologies carry unknown risks and they are largely ethical. We must ensure that they do not fall into the hands of people with bad intentions and selfish goals.

I guess you are all familiar with how artificial intelligence can be used as powerful weapons. Criminals have been using machines for a long time to commit a number of criminal acts involving hacking into information networks or databases from critical infrastructure. Terrorists have unfortunately shown us how drones can even kill more effectively.

We politicians are also discussing with great concern how to ensure the inviolability of human life, as artificial intelligence is used in the workplace today, in the provision of administrative services by collecting huge amounts of personal data. Yes, artificial intelligence uses an algorithm, it is man-made and can be wrong, it can be harmful, it can be criminal.

Last year, Elon Musk, one of the pioneers in the digital world, warned: “Remember my words, artificial intelligence is more dangerous than nuclear weapons.”

And really. Imagine a system that rules the entire planet automatically, and at one point decides to kill half of humanity because resources are depleted.

The question today is not whether artificial intelligence is dangerous and we must limit its development, but how to use if for ethical purposes, for the benefit of humanity.

Let me give you an example with human resources. For some time now, for example, there has been a myth that the introduction of technology into the economy poses great risks to humanity and, above all, to making man useless and unnecessary, and that his activity will be replaced by machines and robots. Let me disagree. At the beginning of the last century, most cities were lit by gas lanterns on the streets, people communicated by telegraph, and overseas voyages continued for days on ships. Well, today our streets are electrified, we communicate on smartphones, and the distance from London to New York is taken in less than 7 hours by air. And man has not become useless and unnecessary. Yes, we no longer need flashlights, and we need electricians so often, we don’t need employees at telegraph stations, but we need specialists in mobile operators, and instead of ship captains, we need pilots, despite autopilots. Technology has not only changed human life on its own, but has made it easier and people freer, more autonomous and productive.

Bulgaria has a strong tradition in science and innovation and in the 80s of the twentieth century because of its strong high-tech industry was called “Silicon Valley of Eastern Europe”. This is evidenced by the fact that the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, founded 152 years ago, is just 10 years older than the modern Bulgarian state. It is natural for us to embrace the idea of digitalizing the economy. The most important  challenge we have to deal with in this direction will be to create strong links between educational institutions and businesses, which will help Bulgarian citizen to be well qualified, adaptable and prepared to the requirements of the labor market. For this reason, a large part of the funds provided by the National Recovery and Sustainability Plan will be directed to the digital transformation of our economy.

Our country has already built a reputation as a regional center in the field of IT and high technology. Despite the pandemic, the software services sector, for example, grew by 10% In 2020, and 35% of those employed in the sector are women, which puts Bulgaria in the first place against this indicator in the EU, with values more than twice the average for the Union. It accounts for over 3% of the country’s total gross domestic product. I will give as an example, the artificial intelligence in the latest generation of Mercedes cars was created in Bulgaria. A few days ago in the British newspaper “Times” I read about 4 start-up companies that have changed the fintech industry. One of them was founded by a Bulgarian woman and already has a capital of 300 million pounds. The company offers everyone to easily manage the income from their pension funds directly from their mobile phone.

Another Bulgarian fintech company creates personal debit cards that help manage any business expenses. This allows the company’s managers to automate payment processes, cost control and receive automatic analyzes and reports. A third Bulgarian company is already a world leader in “smart solutions” for the home and the management of all home systems – for lighting, heating, cooking, entertainment.

I believe that the OECD, an organisation that is a sincere supporter of the idea of digitalization, will support Bulgaria through its experience, recommendations and guidelines in our efforts to create a more sustainable and prosperous economy. We highly value our partnership with the OECD and in recent years we have clearly shown that it is a priority for us to properly prepare for full membership in the organisation. I hope that with joint efforts we will be able to transform our economies and return to the path of sustainable growth, and that, thanks to the digitalization of the economy, humanity will continue to find solutions to the challenges we face. Thank you!

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