Why the "State of the Art" is relevant in AI

May 15, 2023 - 4 min.

Stand der Technik

Technik (or ’technology’) is a very german word. Germans are obsessed with Technik. Technik in cars, in tools, in cooking, in… everything. So it’s not surprising that what in other languages is called ‘state-of-the-art’ (‘état de l’art’, ’estado del arte’), in german has nothing to do with the more general term ‘art’. It’s simply boiled all the way down to technology: ‘Stand der Technik’.

This dedication often becomes the major success factor for german companies. On the other hand, other business aspects like selling, marketing, attaching emotions to products or understanding their customers sometimes fall behind. But when technology is the differentiating factor, it works well for enterprises in this country. (Disclaimer: I’m german and live in Germany since being born.)

You could now argue that the greek origin of ‘Technik" is actually ’téchne’, which more generally means ‘art’, ‘craftmanship’, ‘artistry’. But No!, the german word ‘Technik’ just means technology, in its narrow sense.

In most parts of the world, the state-of-the-art is also relevant from a legal point of view. You cannot just build a house or car like you see fit. You must consider the state-of-the-art, good manufacturing practices and stay current and up-to-date to avoid becoming liable or fall behind in business. This way, progress becomes binding for manufacturers eventually, without the need for the legislator to adopt laws to being very specific all the time.

Cornell University Library, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

Why don’t steam engines blow up (anymore)?

The industrial revolution was possible because steam engines turned the heat of burning coal or wood into kinetic energy, e.g. movements. They spread fast and wide. In the early days, steam engines also blew up once in a while causing serious accidents. Since this was not helping, technology and regulation improved, so today, potentially quite dangerous engines like a combustion engine, or a jet engine mostly just work fine. A state-of-the-art, or ‘Stand der Technik’ was established. We don’t even take notice anymore these days. There’s a high margin of safety build-in.

Similarly, there were no airbags and seat belts in early cars, then they became optional, now they are mandatory. That’s how the state-of-the-art evolves and safety improves.

In Germany, when you are required to let your car get certified as fit for the road every two years, there’s a high chance that this check is done by an organisation called ‘TÜV’ (Technischer Überwachungsverein), which actually was established as a steam engine boiler revision association decades ago. Today, TÜV also offers companies to check their IT systems for vulnerabilities.

Is Information Technology an art?

I don’t know if you consider Information Technology (IT) as being an art. I don’t. But it’s definitively not just an engineering discipline, or research field. IT is a big business, more than ever. It’s shaping the world in a way that completely changes how we live, communicate, consume, travel, and so on. It’s mind-blowing if you think of it.

What is the ‘Stand der Technik’ for Information Technology? Sure, we have automated tests, we have self-healing systems (do we?), backups, software upgrades, security fixes, intrusion detection and (sometimes) documentation. But all in all, the state-of-the-art for bread-and-butter IT systems is rather informal and not well established, if you exclude some highly safety-regulated sectors like air transportation or the health sector.

IT needs to establish a better ‘Stand der Technik’, or maybe start to adhere to it more than most IT systems currently do.

It’s kind of surprising that the IT craftmanship more or less managed to get around that until today. Until today, when…

AI regulation happens

AI – which is IT – will be regulated. In the EU at least, but probably elsewhere, too. AI systems will be put into boxes like “high risk” and “low risk”. Just like, say, the central control computer on a plane is “high risk” and the Raspberry Pi in your cupboard is “low risk”. But it looks like for AI, regulation will come into effect before a state-of-the-art has evolved over time by itself. This is unfortunate, because the Stand-der-Technik approach actually helps in the early phases of a technology. It allows for continued innovation while gradually improving safety at the same time, without regulators overshooting and hampering innovation.

State-of-the-Art is binding

Now, the AI Act is emerging, but is not in effect yet.

Still, whatever kind of system you’re building today based on IT, whether it’s containing AI or not: be prepared that you need to take into account the state-of-the-art. It’s very relevant today already.

And with AI becoming more commonplace and part of more and more IT systems, AI regulation will become greedy, it will affect a growing number of products out there. Plus, if AI regulation is not done properly by legislators, even some non-AI systems might be dragged into the scope of this regulation, too.

However, even if regulation is contained and not over-reaching, nobody can escape the ‘Stand der Technik’. And the state-of-the-art is always binding.

NOTE: For deeper and more practical considerations about the state-of-the-art see this document from a german IT security association.

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