The fight for Europe’s digital future

If the West loses the race to gain the economic, security, and social benefits of AI and other advanced technologies, there will be a fundamental shift in the global order

June 29, 2021, Barcelona, Spain: Attendants during the video conference given by Tesla and SpaceX founder, Elon Musk, at the Mobile World Congress 2021 in Barcelona. Mobile World Congress is back after the cancellation of the previous edition due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Credit Image: © Jordi Boixareu/ZUMA Wire
Attendants during the video conference given by Tesla and SpaceX founder, Elon Musk, at the Mobile World Congress 2021 in Barcelona
©

For too long, the European Union has ignored many of the potential opportunities and threats created by artificial intelligence (AI) and other advanced technologies. In contrast, Russia and China have spent decades investing in technological development and production. The spread of disinformation, the dark web, cyber-attacks, mass hacks, and autonomous weapons systems has given Russian President Vladimir Putin and other authoritarians a new arsenal of weapons that they often use with one goal in mind – destabilising the West.

As Russia intensifies its war on Ukraine and escalates its aggression towards the West, Europeans’ potential vulnerabilities to technological threats are being laid bare. History teaches that the race to replace key technologies – swords with guns, cannons with machine guns, horses with tanks – can be decisive. If the Axis powers had developed nuclear weapons before the Allies, the second world war would have ended very differently.

In the modern era, there have long been warning signs of Europeans’ technological vulnerabilities. Car manufacturers have delayed and halted production due to a lack of computer chips. Countries that export commodities vital to the production of advanced technologies are under the heavy influence of Chinese and Russian investment. Government institutions in Europe have repeatedly been hacked and disabled. And too many voters now believe the planted, promoted, and manipulated half-truths they read on social media. While digital progress has brought unimaginable achievements and opportunities, it has also brought the potential for darkness.

If the EU and the United States lose the race to gain the economic, security, and social benefits of AI and other advanced technologies, there will be a fundamental shift in the global order. Quantum computers would outpace the greatest minds, semiconductor supply chains would collapse, cyber-attacks would paralyse states and control enemy satellites – it would be a brave new world. However, with enough political support for European innovators, it will not be too late to avoid this fate.

To this end, Europeans should immediately take the following actions. Firstly, they should become world leaders not only on issues such as data protection but also on those such as digital security and digital innovation. Europe’s digital agenda should transcend individual laws and agreements to permeate all policy areas. Europeans need to talk frankly about digital sovereignty and why it matters. Digital sovereignty was never meant to be about building a wall around Europe’s digital services or creating a Europe Wide Web. Instead, it is about Europeans taking their digital destiny into their own hands. Global cooperation does not have to mean global dependency. Semiconductors and cloud computing should not become the new Russian oil.

Secondly, the EU needs an AI Act that reflects its digital ambitions and values. In my draft report on the AI Act, I stress that there is a need to balance innovation and the effort to win the most important technological battle in history with the protection of European values and beliefs. It would be counterproductive for the EU to stifle Europeans’ capacity to innovate through overregulation. If the union allows AI development to run wild, this could create a monster that is impossible to control.

Global cooperation does not have to mean global dependency. Semiconductors and cloud computing should not become the new Russian oil.

Europe needs to support technological innovation by start-ups and small and medium-sized enterprises. And it should find better ways to include them in the development of the AI sector – through, for instance, their input in creating an AI Code of Conduct or developing standards. The inclusion of regulatory sandboxes in this act is welcome, but the EU needs to take a more ambitious and cohesive approach to AI that has clear, practical benefits for start-ups.

The AI Act should set robust but realistic standards for high-risk activities, encourage the uptake of AI systems, and be future-proofed through improved links to developments in technology, industry, and the power of technology. The EU should seek to align its definition of AI with that of institutions such as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, and should build on platforms such as the Trade and Technology Council to engage in deeper cooperation with its democratic allies. Such an approach would build up confidence in the sector, attract inward investment, and allow the union to make up ground on its rivals.

Finally, Europeans need to look carefully at what is already on the negotiating table. This means the swift adoption of the second EU Directive on the Security of Networks and Information Systems, which will replace its poorly implemented predecessor. Europeans should strengthen, and increase the resources available to, the EU Agency for Cybersecurity and Europol’s Cybercrime Centre. They should expand on the founding principles of the Council of Europe’s Budapest Convention on Cybercrime. And the European Commission needs to comprehensively map out all proposals in the EU Digital Strategy. Rather than take a piecemeal approach to implementation, the EU needs to provide significant support to ensure that businesses and public administrations fully grasp how to follow and optimise these regulatory requirements.

Russia’s all-out war on Ukraine has led to some of the most radical shifts in decades in the policies of the EU and its member states. The process needs to extend to the digital sphere. This political moment should generate not a fleeting act of unity during a crisis but a mission statement and a long-term vision for Europe. Europeans can only secure their own future if they help protect the future of others. The EU should not become a digital fortress of regulation. Instead, it should become a global technological leader among democratic powers – one that protects Europeans’ future security and prosperity.

Eva Maydell is a member of the European Parliament; rapporteur for the AI Act in the Committee on Industry, Research, and Energy; vice-chair of the Delegation for Relations with Japan and an ECFR Council member.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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