Events - 27.01.2023 - 12:45

"University of St.Gallen Grand Challenge": Stress test for a new law on the practical regulation of AI

In light of the new EU Act on Artificial Intelligence, International teams will gather in St.Gallen on 18-19 July 2023 focused on implementing the soon-to-be implemented act. An interview by researcher Viktoriya Zakrevskaya with HSG professor Thomas Burri, who initiated the event.

Later this year, A Grand Challenge Competition will be organized and hosted at HSG. The event is modeled after the famous DARPA engineering challenges and is the first such challenge to take place in the Social Sciences. Currently organizers are looking for teams interested in taking place in the competition and are gathering prospective teams online. They will also host an information session on March 2, 2023 15:00 CET. After announcing this international competition with 100,000 CHF at stake, researcher Viktoriya Zakrevskaya sat down with Professor Thomas Burri, to find out more.

Viktoriya Zakrevskaya: Where did you find the inspiration for this project? How did you come up with the idea?

Thomas Burri: In 2015, I was at the DARPA Robotics Challenge in Los Angeles with a PhD student. The Challenge was focused on humanoid robots. Ever since then, I have thought it would be great to do something like this… But it took me some time to figure out how to apply the idea behind this engineering competition, to the social sciences – without losing what makes the DARPA Challenges so unique and exciting.

What is a Grand Challenge? Why such name?

In our Grand Challenge, teams will compete by assessing the AI technology we provide in the light of new law. We want this to be big, so “grand”, not minor or small... [laughs]. The first DARPA Challenge dealt with autonomous cars in 2004, and it was called the DARPA Grand Challenge. Inspired by this, we are attempting to bring the same energetic atmosphere to HSG where international teams can focus on the challenges of implementing the EU AI Act, which is expected to be law.

What problem does the Grand Challenge solve?

It sheds light on how this upcoming legislation, the Act of the EU on AI, can be implemented. The important point is that the Grand Challenge is not a theoretical thing. It is a hands-on endeavor involving real technology from the industry. And the main characteristic of this endeavor is that it is a competition. But the Grand Challenge may not only help with implementing the AI Act, it could also reveal deficiencies in the Act itself.

What is unique to this competition?

I think what makes this novel is that we are having a competition to stress-test a new piece of legislation. Such a competition is a new idea. Of course, there is a competitive element in any court proceeding, but as far as I can see no one has done such a challenge in the social sciences before. We are also thinking about other legislation [than the AI Act] that could be subject to a Grand Challenge in the future.

Who benefits?

So many are bound to benefit! It is not just the team winning the Grand Challenge and taking the 100’000 CHF, but all teams who position themselves in a new market and sharpen their skills. Those who make available AI tech for the competition will benefit from an early assessment of the law and visibility. The University of St.Gallen and Switzerland also will become a more prominent name in regards to AI and law. But these kinds of competitions can also kick-start entire new economic branches.

Why should the public care? Where will it take place?

Well, you know I have just come back from the Swiss Robotics Days in Lausanne. It is just very exciting to have the latest AI and robotic tech at your hands. There is a special vibe, a pioneering spirit at these events. Ours will also encompass that and it will be tangible to the public. At the DARPA Robotics Challenge in 2015 there were thousands of spectators. Or the ETH Cybathlon 2016: It filled the Zurich Hallenstadion! How amazing is that? I am not sure we will reach this scale, but who knows? But beyond that, the huge buzz around AI will even intensify around our event. And then: have you ever seen the enthusiasm of children when they see robots?

Which results do you expect to achieve? By when?

The most important output of these kinds of events is hard to quantify. They create a spirit, a community, an excitement. And this can lead to wonderful things: Research cooperations, new ideas, new undertaking, new friendship. Of course, we will also have tangible output. We will have a report on the new methods developed for the assessment under the AI Act. As an academic, I expect that we can write several papers on this. It is also possible that the Grand Challenge leads to new findings that can be fed back into the EU legislative process. For companies, I think the most important benefit is that they get clarity on what the EU AI Act means for them, including recommendations, etc. With this, their engineers and tech scientist can continue their work without fearing that they “do something wrong” all the time. But for me personally, this is all more a sort of synergy. What motivates me to do this is the spirit of the event, the excitement of this new idea.

On a more critical note, who makes the assessment and how?

We expect six teams consisting of experts in compliance, the law, but also technology. There are several methods out there, but they need to be improved. The Grand Challenge should be a catalyst for this.

Who makes the selection of teams?

We don’t know yet how many teams will apply. But we as organizers will make a careful selection together with two members of our Jury. There are objective criteria to select teams, like expertise, credibility, commitment, and diversity in terms of gender, age, and general background.

Thomas Burri is a Professor of International Law and European Law at the University of St.Gallen and organizes the University of St.Gallen Grand Challenge. 

Viktoriya Zakrevskaya is executive manager and public affairs advisor to the Grand Challenge.

More information on the University of St.Gallen Grand Challenge can be found on: and

Image: Adobe Stock / Andrey Popov