Technology and Revitalization of the Transatlantic Community
Faced with global disruption by the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States and Europe must reinvigorate the the transatlantic community’s sense of purpose. Both sides will benefit if they tackle technological innovation collectively right now. But will we have the courage to do so?
COVID-19 is the first time in a century we have experienced the same problem as a planet. In the facing this problem, we can either join together or split apart. At the international level, collective action should begin with the transatlantic community. Our ties have long been a source of strength and innovation as the United States and Europe have navigated epochal changes in the past.
The urgent requirements of the pandemic must intensify and accelerate a joint U.S. and European commitment to exchanging ideas and developing technology for our common benefit and to advance our shared values. Yet I fear it could achieve the opposite.
The response to the pandemic – closing borders and shuttering economies – has strained many of the ties in the transatlantic community. Diverging decisions about how to employ and regulate technology for everything from contact tracing to countering misinformation about the virus could lock in lasting differences between Europeans and Americans.
Underlying technology tensions
It has been jarring to see the technology debate on both sides of the Atlantic shift from transatlantic to bloc and national rhetoric in terms of technology governance, industrial policy, and national security strategy over the past few years. The EU asserted it would restore its “technological sovereignty” and challenged the reach of tech companies in Europe. Its leaders touted a research cloud “being developed in Europe for Europe and for European researchers.” The United States, meanwhile, initiated a full-court press to convince Europeans not to accept Huwaiei’s 5G gear on security grounds, but many European states viewed the calculus between security and commercial interests differently. Perhaps this moment of crisis will galvanize a more collective transatlantic response. Crises tend to be great accelerators of technological innovation. Covid-19 is no exception.
Accelerated technology developments
Defeating the virus and reopening the world will depend on making sense of data and making risk-based assessments. At Schmidt Futures, a philanthropy I founded, we are convening more than 50 organizations in business, government, and philanthropy in seven working groups specifically to find and elevate new tech-based solutions to crisis response and rebuilding. We should grow this cooperation across the Atlantic.
The pooling of transatlantic data on the virus paired with AI-based applications could help inform a strategy to restart transatlantic travel and some sectors of the economy. We have the technology to improve contact tracing, but employing it requires addressing legitimate concerns about privacy. Promising bluetooth-based contact tracing applications are being developed in Europe and the United States, including by Google and Apple. As transatlantic travel resumes, it will make little sense to have separate U.S. and European systems. We must use this experience to build the protocols and technologies to prepare the transatlantic community for any recurring waves of this virus and for the next biothreat.
Misinformation and tech’s responsibility
The pandemic has demonstrated once again that social media platforms can amplify disinformation and contribute to the further fracturing of the transatlantic community. Social media companies – scorned in recent years for their slow reaction to terrorist propaganda, Russian disinformation, and now pandemic conspiracies – will play a central role in the survival of the transatlantic world.
The infrastructure for tele-everything
We are living in the era of tele-everything, some of which will endure after social distancing is over. We need a fully connected population and ultrafast infrastructure. 19 million Americans do not have any access to the Internet and likewise for around ten percent of households in EU states. U.S. and European governments must make significant investments – perhaps as part of stimulus packages – to convert digital infrastructure to cloud and link it with 5G networks.
Given that the data and problems will be focused on open research and solving big societal problems, could a consortium of U.S. and European research institutes combine their effort, merge their datasets, and share computing power? Ongoing U.S.-EU talks on cloud computing cooperation should be prioritized and draw from examples of European initiatives with Japan, Brazil, and South Korea.
A shared approach to China
A collective decision about the depth and nature of technology collaboration with China built on shared principles is in the interest of Europe and the United States, and ultimately China. U.S. and EU research institutions should learn from each other and adopt similar standards for handling risks from collaborations with Chinese partners. A recent Mercator study highlighted expanding Chinese R&D collaborations in Europe, some of which may raise tech transfer concerns that impact security and economic competitiveness. U.S. institutions have been dealing with similar concerns, and MIT and others have implemented heightened scrutiny measures. The same principle applies to investment screening. The EU adopted a foreign investment screening regulation foreign investment screening regulation in 2019 that member states are expected to implement by October 2020. Officials on each side of the Atlantic could learn from one another as European nations develop and enforce their screening measures.
We still have a choice of whether to allow the pandemic to intensify differences or bridge them. The United States and Europe share the same core principles – including commitments to individual liberty and privacy – even if they both continue to arrive at different policy and governance decisions about what that means for integrating technology into society and the economy.
The United States and Europe navigated past eras of global disruption – in 1945, 1989, and 2008 – and emerged with a stronger commitment to transatlantic integration and common values. We must make that the overriding objective for this crisis too. Responding to the pandemic, rebuilding the economy, and recommitting to shared values will reinvigorate the sense of purpose that the transatlantic community has collectively lost. It will prepare us for the next pandemic and plant the seeds for the rebirth of a wider world shaped and led by the West.
Dr. Eric Schmidt is the former CEO and executive chairman of Google.