The following remarks were delivered by Anna-Michelle Asimakopoulou, Member of the European Parliament (EPP Group) and Vice Chair of the Committee on International Trade (INTA), at the Center for Data Innovation’s European AI Policy Conference held on December 1, 2020.
Esteemed colleagues and participants in today’s meeting,
I am honored to be speaking today at the European AI Policy Conference and I would like to thank the Center for Data Innovation for their invitation.
The fascinating and high-level discussions that took place today definitely show that Artificial Intelligence is the “flavor of the digital decade”, so to speak. AI is most certainly key to achieving Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s ambitious goal to make this decade “Europe’s Digital Decade,” as she said in her State of the Union address. AI is one of the technologies that she highlighted in her inauguration speech a year ago, when she set the goal for Europe to achieve “mastery and ownership of key technologies in Europe.”
But what President Ursula von der Leyen also stressed was that “Europe must deepen and refine its partnerships with its friends and allies … (and be) ready to build a new transatlantic agenda. To strengthen our bilateral partnership—be it on trade, tech or taxation.”
The results of the elections across the Atlantic have created positive expectations in Europe for a return to multilateralism, collective action, global leadership in defending democratic values, and a “fresh start” for transatlantic cooperation.
Ergo, the EU draft plan which surfaced just a few days ago entitled “a new EU-U.S. agenda for global change,” where tech and AI are prominently featured. Europe now calls on the United States to seize a “once in a generation” opportunity to create a new global alliance and meet the “strategic challenge” posed by China. It suggests specifically that the EU and the United States use their “combined influence” to create a “transatlantic technology space” which will form the “backbone of a wider coalition of like-minded democracies.”
This would, of course, include cooperation on artificial intelligence, which is very rapidly becoming both an enabler for economic development and social well-being, and at the same time a powerful tool for authoritarian control.
At the heart of all the lively discussions taking place today globally about AI policy are technological, ethical, legal, and socio-economic aspects, as well as geopolitical strategic considerations. In the new technopolitical world order, what is at stake in the AI race is nothing less than our core values of liberty, equality, and justice that underpin free and open societies.
Ladies and gentlemen,
the COVID-19 pandemic has been an “accelerator” of all things digital.
Data collection and processing for research and development to analyze the virus and find a vaccine and contact-tracing apps are two prime examples. The pandemic has revealed beyond a shadow of a doubt the key role digitalization plays in responding to a global crisis, and has forced us to stop and re-evaluate interconnections in the global economy and admit that we have some dangerous dependencies and some worrying vulnerabilities. Dependencies on video communications technologies for work, education, many functions of our daily lives, and vulnerabilities in global supply chains for basic necessities, such as medicine, masks, and ventilators. Today, more than ever, we cannot take this issue lightly. Swift action is required for our own security and resilience.
In the digital domain, China is investing billions in AI, 5G, quantum computing, and chip fabrication, as part of a strategy, launched in July 2017, to establish itself as the world’s AI leader. By the year 2030, it expects to have a domestic AI industry worth at least $150 billion. China steals IPR, tries to dominate international standard setting bodies, and lures countries into its techno orbit through the “digital silk road” initiative. China has 1.4 billion people to produce data, and its own robust techno giants who are generously supported with state aid and protected from competition. In return, they are expected to support the Communist Party’s surveillance state.
Across the Atlantic, say what you will about Donald Trump—and there is a lot to say—but he was right to recognize that China was—and is—a major threat to America’s digital supremacy. He gave Europe a wake-up call as well and made us realize that it may be naïve—to say the least—to believe that you can have a strategic partnership with a systemic rival.
However, while Trump maintained the overall tech laissez-faire approach in order to support economic growth and maintain U.S. technological leadership by protecting U.S. tech giants, he failed to recognize the importance of collaborating with like-minded countries (like India, Japan, and the EU). Partners that prefer international agreements, multilateral rules and share values much closer to those of the United States than China.
Europe has responded to U.S. techno giant dominance and Chinese aggressive ambitions by setting its own geopolitical priority of tech independence, termed in the “Brussels bubble-ease” “strategic autonomy” and/or “digital sovereignty.” As Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič emphasized: “We can make Europe more resilient by boosting our open strategic autonomy and building a…digitally sovereign future.”
This potential of new dependencies, namely on holders of certain critical technologies such as AI, who use them in an autocratic manner, as well as on those controlling large volumes of data is why Europe is striving to create its own “open yet sovereign Single Market for Data” which is crucial for AI development, as stated by Commissioner for Internal Market Thierry Breton during the presentation of yesterday’s Commission proposal of new rules on data governance.
Clearly, AI technology is key to achieving European digital sovereignty as part of the overall strategy of open strategic autonomy. Europe is working hard to be at the forefront of this technological revolution, to ensure competitiveness, and to shape the conditions for the development and use of AI with respect for our rights and values.
The European institutions, the Commission, the Council of Europe, and the European Parliament are putting the human-centric AI approach at the heart of their reflections and legislative work. The same is true in our work at the European Parliament, in the many standing committees dealing with AI issues such as civil liability, intellectual property, and military uses. In the Special Committee on Artificial Intelligence in the Digital Age (AIDA), my colleagues and I are taking a horizontal approach in creating a long-term roadmap for AI in Europe and focusing on economic sectors in our upcoming report, a first draft of which should be available in April 2021.
Overall, Europe is advocating a model that seeks balance, providing flexibility, so that there is room for innovation and scalability, safeguarding competitiveness and leadership, building trust, and protecting citizens’ rights.
Just as it did with GDPR, where Europe used its economic weight and regulatory power to create a “gold standard” for privacy regulation, it will try to achieve the so called “Brussels effect” with its AI human-centric regulatory framework as well, and “force” the hand of the global tech world to conform to its own values and standards.
Having said all this, I would like to stress that while digital sovereignty is a laudable response to external threats, weaponizing digital trade relationships will only take you so far, and it is very likely that it will eventually backfire. Simply stated, protection is a good idea but protectionism isn’t! There is much discussion about what the meaning of “Open Strategic Autonomy” actually is. Is it legitimate protection or undue and covert “protectionism?” “Autonomy,” or “αυτονομία” in Greek, comes from the words αὐτός (autós, “self”) and νόμος (nómos, “law”). It literally means being free to make your own rules. Actually, it is your right to be able to make your own rules. Making these rules in Europe has produced our commonly shared values: Democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights.
In this context, Europe should of course demand transparency and fairness, and ensure accountability of tech giants, but should not refuse to see them as strategic partners, when there is added-value from the cooperation. A good step in this direction is for instance, the inclusion as a member of Microsoft in the GAIA-X federation of European clouds, announced last week at the GAIA-X Summit.
The proposed transatlantic rapprochement needs to get past the fractious disagreements about privacy rights, data flows, competition rules, and taxation. The EU and the United States must come together to reach workable and mutually beneficial compromises to promote AI rules and standards based on openness, interoperability, and competition. If this is done at the transatlantic level, the result could be truly formidable and a beacon of light that many others would willingly follow.
Some steps have been made towards this strategic alliance for AI but we need to move faster. The United States joined other nations in the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence (GPAI) based on the OECD Principles. This partnership, or the G7 or other international groups and initiatives, should set global standards for AI and international rules of conduct for AI, that reflect democratic values, while addressing critical questions such as facial recognition for surveillance, automated decision-making, and algorithmic bias.
What we need is a formal but flexible and resilient international geo-techno alliance that will create consensus at such a scale and pace capable of inspiring on the basis of values and alluring on the basis of shared interests. At stake is the creation of a global environment based on the principle of value-based digital sovereignty that will ensure human rights, fair trade rules, and accountability, and where people and nations could rebuild and seek out prosperity.
Europe is openly embracing President-elect Biden’s “Summit of Democracies,” expected to take place early in his term. This may be the most opportune moment for Europe to put artificial intelligence at the heart of the “revival” of the transatlantic relationship.
I join my former colleague, Marietje Schaake, now international policy director at the Cyber Policy Center of Stanford University, in urging the United States to take up Europe’s call and to “set a joint agenda toward an international democratic order for the digital world.”
It has become quite obvious as of late, that in today’s world, in what we are calling the “new normal,” there are no “certainties.”
This includes democracy, which has been infected by populism in many countries, from that which gave birth to it, to those that have traditionally championed it. Looking in the mirror, we must admit that this is the result of mistakes made by democratic governments, whose voters felt disconnected from their leaders as their income decreased, immigration increased, and the world became increasingly volatile and unpredictable.
Populist governments threaten democracy, not by military force, but by using their power to erode established norms and independent institutions. And politics is becoming more and more partisan, polarized, and uncompromising.
And although democracy is not a “given,” it is remarkably resilient. It can be compromised but it can also be reborn out of elections. And it is certainly something that people around the world, like in Belarus and Hong Kong, long for and strive for, at great cost. In the end, democracy is an inspiration for all of us.
The European Union and the United States have a longstanding relationship, one based on respect for mutual benefit, shared values and respect for democracy. Ultimately it is democracy which can reinvigorate the bond between them. During this “window of opportunity” we must urgently make a choice of direction. Choosing to continue our joint path in the digital world guided by democracy is most certainly the intelligent choice (artificial or otherwise).