“I want Europe to strive for more by grasping the opportunities from the digital age within safe and ethical boundaries.” This vision of Ursula von der Leyen is among the highest priorities on her ’Agenda for Europe’ that got her elected as president of the European Commission this summer.
And not only that. She has committed to submitting a plan for the legislation that will enable the EU to handle the human and ethical implications of AI within her first 100 days in office.
The deadline itself may not be one to get too hung up on. Especially since it is only recently that the Commission and its ‘High Level Group for AI’ initiated a pilot phase with the purpose of having hundreds of companies and organisations run tests on ethical principles and check lists.
Nonetheless, the message is clear: digitalisation is among the three most urgent matters for the newly-elected and appointed legislators of Europe – alongside “a green European deal” and “an economy that works for people”. It is about time.
The key concept in von der Leyen’s vision – and what makes her rank digital in top three – is what she refers to as “tech sovereignty”. As an expression, it is worth focusing on a bit to understand more fully what it is.
For a former German defence minister, sovereignty must surely refer to the authority and ability to govern itself. And that is exactly what is at stake here: the authority and ability to govern ourselves. If we wish to maintain this authority – some may even say recapture it – we need to start focusing deeply on soundly developing and supporting technologies such as blockchain, AI, quantum computing, algorithm and tools that allow data usage and data sharing.
Admitting that replicating hyperscalers may be too late, achieving technological sovereignty in a number of other critical technology areas certainly isn’t, von der Leyen states. In case anybody should be wondering, hyperscalers refer to gigantic digital conglomerates that – with cloud computing based on giant data centres. They offer infrastructure, platforms as well as private hosting, and that, besides from seeking dominance in the public cloud, are operating in several verticals; in other words, companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft. What they all share in common, besides from super growth rates and super innovation rates, is that not one of them has been founded in – or is based in – Europe. Not one. A reality that the leaders of Europe have taken their time to realize.
Why is this a problem? Because when the data centres of this world are situated in the USA, India or China, so is the data. And we know – among other places from Edward Snowden – that he who rules data, rules the world. The lord of the cloud sets the standard. The lord of the cloud – and his lord – can make life miserable for everyone else. The lord of the cloud has insight into the strategies, defence plans, offence plans, visions and so on of everybody that has chosen to store their data with him. And yes, the cloud is owned by private companies. But here we can revisit the learnings from Snowden; governments and intelligence services play a much more dominant role here than we really like to think about, meaning it is imperative that clear international regulation is laid out for private sector companies to navigate with.
And while the battle for the clouds may be lost for Europe for now, the next generation of hyperscalers isn’t.
Market, system or human-centric
This is when it becomes interesting to dwell a bit on the dystopic alternative. That is to say, the notion that when it comes to the said new technologies, we will end up just the same as we did with the cloud, which is now dominated either by the raw capitalism of the USA or the equally raw system-centred China. None of these systems have values like human rights, ethics and diversity as their main scope, at least not to the extent that Europe has them.
What would AI become in a raw capitalist economy? Imagine AI in a full-scale version, leveraging only on cost-effectiveness and income optimising, but not considering any kind of regulations on how humans are segmented. How many of us would be categorised “too expensive”, “too inefficient,” “too sick”, “too polluting”, “too genetically challenged”?
And what would be this system-centred world’s version of AI? For starters, it would probably be pretty obvious which citizens would be most likely to criticise the system and have the potential to consciously seek to undermine it. It is probably safe to assume that these citizens wouldn’t be the ones given the best opportunities in such society.
Von der Leyen is committing to prioritising long-term investment in AI and to massively increase public-private partnerships. She is committing to submit the legislation necessary to complete the Digital Single Market. And she encourages us – all of us – to change our mind-sets from the “need to know” to the ”need to share”.
While warmly appreciating this line of thinking, I also encourage Mrs von der Leyen to take her time to listen to the private sector companies – European ones as well as international ones – that are set up to develop and deliver on the technologies at stake. They are the ones that understand the needs, they are the ones that – within the legislative and market-given boundaries – are set up to come up with the solutions for a free and sovereign Europe of tomorrow.
Balance is key here. Regulation is necessary. However, too much of it will end scalable innovation. European companies must be profitable, too. The sovereignty of Europe is at stake. Thus is why we must hurry. But let’s hasten in a very thorough manner.
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