A commentary to the Turin Tecnological Kermesse (Decode Symposium and Festival della Tecnologia).
The approval, by the European Parliament, of Thierry Breton as the candidate of France to the new Commission opens up the necessary debate about a coordinated European policy for digital. I think that this is the key issue of this political phase.
Not everybody is persuaded of that. On the contrary, many tend to deny also now that Europe must start as soon as possible with a new affirmative strategy for catching up the distance accumulated, not only towards America, but also towards China, Russia, India and Israel.
When I have asked, to the panel of the Decode Symposium of 5-6 November, in Nuvola Lavazza, Torino, whether they did not think that Europe needs now a new Institution, and even a “Single Man in Power”, for handling all of the Digital Issues presently at stake, Luca Di Biase answered me in a hurry that, since everything is becoming digital now, my proposal would mean that such person would become “a Fuehrer”. But this is precisely the direction into which all areas of the world are going, not because of a specific ideological choice, but because of the technological evolution of the Digital Era obliges nations and societies to follow that path. In the States, if the “Fuehrer” were not Trump, it would be Kurzweil or Zuckerberg.
In fact, my provocation was not just a strange personal idea, but rather corresponds to a clearly perceived need, shared by a relevant segment of European politics, citizens and think tanks. As written by the European Foreign Relation Council (ECFR), “European countries are increasingly vulnerable to external pressure that prevents them from exercising their sovereignty.” By the way, these pressures have been very heavy since a long time, i.e., since the end of World War II: for example, as concerns the drafting of the new constitutions, the repression of alternative political movements, the stationing of US and USSR forces and armaments in Europe, the impunity of these armed forces and intelligence. However, notwithstanding the end of the Warsaw Pact, the European weakness has never been so striking as now, since at least the competition between US and USSR opened up some spaces of freedom, such as the ones exploited by national-communist parties, by de Gaulle, by the Ostpolitik and by the dissident movements of Eastern Europe.
Taking into account this present situation, the ECFR has written that ” to prosper and maintain their independence in a world of geopolitical competition, Europeans must address the interlinked security and economic challenges other powerful states present – without withdrawing their support for a rules-based order and the transatlantic alliance. This will involve creating a new idea of ‘strategic sovereignty’, as well as creating institutions and empowering individuals that see strategic sovereignty as part of their identity and in their bureaucratic interest. Most fundamentally, the EU needs to learn to think like a geopolitical power”.
2. AI has worsened Europe’s weakness.
As stated by many people, including Hawking, Rees, Musk and Putin, Artificial Intelligence constitutes a fundamental existential risk, i.e., the risk that mankind will cease to exist because intelligent machines will render it useless or even dangerous. This risk is strictly connected with the one of the extinction of Europeans because of their inability to cope with the digital revolution.
Within the above framework, Ulrike Franke has written: “AI’s potential can appear almost limitless. It is not only ‘dual-use’, in the sense that it can be used for both civilian and military applications, but ‘omni-use’, potentially able to influence all elements of life”(such as religion, freedom, human structure, sex, family, politics, economy, work, ethic…).The US, China, and Russia grasp this geopolitic impact of AI and pursue their imperial agendas in recognition of this. The negligence of the Europeans is highly suspect, and connected with the overwhelming nature of American hegemony. As Franke remarks, “the recently published ‘Executive Order on Maintaining American Leadership in Artificial Intelligence’ takes a clearly geopolitical approach, and emphasises that: ’continued American leadership in AI is of paramount importance to maintaining the economic and national security of the United States and to shaping the global evolution of AI in a manner consistent with our Nation’s values, policies, and priorities’. In contrast, the European Commission’s ‘AI Factsheet’ only emphasises the importance of AI in sectors such as healthcare, transport, and public services. “
Contrary to the optimism expressed by Thierry Breton during his hearing in front of the European Parliament, Kai-Fu Lee has claimed that Europe is “not even in the running for bronze AI medal”.
3.A criticism to the vision of Evgeny Morozov and of the Decode Project.
Evgeny Morozov, which was the soul of the Decode Symposium, expressed without hesitation a need for a strong European state intervention against digital capitalism. However, according to my mind, as I told him, his proposed strategy is vague, not drawing all consequences from the “net delusion”. In fact, if “technological sublime” was just the last avatar of the myth of progress, its failure shows also the impossibility to master technology with a “libertarian” approach. The first stumbling block is constituted by the inability of such approach to cope with the fundamental problem of labour’s role in the digital society. In fact, the digital capitalism well described by Morozov and Zuboff consists of a step-by-step take-over of the economic system by an alliance of digital industries and finance. Via their control an all production processes, digital capitalists, in the same moment in which they digitalise productive capital (agriculture, manufacture, services), they become the beneficial owners of the same. E.g., in substituting manpower with machines, the digital industry becomes the main supplier of the manufacturing industry, and, in providing also the services of Big Data, it substitutes their management staff (which exercised the control over the businesses), and the administrative complex of the State (which exercised the control over economy. At the end, digital giants will remain the only employers of the machines, carrying out the work of all society.
The form of democratic participation favoured by the Decode Project are helpful for maintaining a certain amount of participation at local level, but cannot impede that the giants of the web take over the real infrastructures of society, i.e. the large continental States and the manufacturing complex, nor address the question of power on the big decisions presently taken by States and Corporations.
In a realistic view, decentralisation, as favoured by the Decode Project, would play a positive role positive in a digital society as in any other society, but will never be integral, because certain fundamental decisions, such as the one about the social model and the one of war and peace have always been centralised, and always will be. We cannot leave them to the digital giants and to Big Data.
So, at the end of the day, if we follow the suggestions of the Decode Project, we will have a concentration of political and economic power in a few digital capitalists, and probably a certain vague and useless decentralisation of municipal life. The main problem, the one to transfer the profits of the digital complex to the unemployed population would remain unsolved. The idea of “citizenship income”, even if it would be really be implemented, would be unsatisfactory, before all because it would involve the whole population, but will not solve the problem of power. Citizens have power only if they have a role in the production and management cycle, and this role will not be guaranteed by participation just in municipal life, but, on the contrary, by the one in production processes. Whilst physical production will be concentrated in machines, immaterial processes (or, better, decision-making processes) should be concentrated in humans.
4.Europe’s Digital Sovereignty
Because of the need to assert the people’s sovereignty over the digital-military complex, people’s participation should be guaranteed not just at local level, but also, and above all, Europe.
Unfortunately, because of the omni-pervasive impact of AI, digital subordination of Europe just increases the former general kind of subalternity. As the Brueghel think Tank puts it, “Europeans like to believe the European Union has the collective economic size and capacity to determine its own economic destiny. But the behaviour of others global powers is increasingly calling this ability into question. China and the United States, especially, do not separate economic interests from geopolitical interests in the same way the EU does. They are increasingly using economic connections, from cyberspace to financial links, to gain geopolitical advantage or to serve geopolitical goals. Europe’s economic sovereignty is at stake”.
Tis problem is tightly linked to the one of participation, shown by the debates inside the Decode Symposium. In fact, as, in the West, digital giants are all American, the expropriation of all production structures from their former owners amounts, in the long term, to the colonisation of Europe’s economy by America, as foreseeen by Lev Trockij already during World War I. This problem is worsened, now, by the fact that, for being able to maintain a minimum of balance with America, European are favouring the presence, beside the American multinationals, of Chinese, Arab, Indian and Russian ones. This has led to a substantial absence of managerial skills in Europe, both in the private and in the public sector. An extreme paradox is constituted by the fact that the Italian State, after having privatised ILVA considering the private sector as more effective than the public one, and after the bankruptcy of the Italian investors, has attracted an Indian group, which, immediately thereafter, would be happy to flee away, but which the Italian State pretends to “oblige” do hold its investment in Italy.
As I personally recalled during the Festival della Tecnologia at the Politecnico di Torino, Emmanuel Macron has recently declared: “My goal is to recreate a European sovereignty in AI” . And, as ECFR has written, “the EU has the market power, defence spending, and diplomatic heft to end this vulnerability and restore sovereignty to its member states. But, unless it acts soon, Europe may become not a player in the new world order but the chessboard on which great powers compete for power and glory”. “This means fundamentally rethinking the purpose of European integration. In an earlier era, the main tools of EU policymaking served quite different purposes than they do today. Defence and security policy was about demilitarising Europe rather than building capabilities and a capacity for action. Competition policy was about eliminating state aid and unfair competition within the EU rather than defending European consumers and companies from the predatory behaviour of actors outside Europe’s borders. Equally, European technology and research policies were about redistributing resources within the EU rather than matching the best in a global technology race”.
5.AI and Defence
Paradoxically, recovering European sovereignty would be easier in the defence sector than in the civil one, because cyberwar is less expensive than traditional warfare based upon a mix of infantry, marine, air forces, missile nuclear forces and covert operations.
Ulrike Franke writes, for this purpose, that “ignoring the impact that AI can have on warfare is not a viable long- or even short-term approach. Indeed, there may even be opportunities for European countries that they have not yet acknowledged: the new competitive landscape could, in fact, benefit middle powers, as they will have greater capacity to compete than they did in the creation of the complex – and expensive – military platforms used today, such as precision-guided missiles and nuclear-powered submarines. Political scientist Michael Horowitz argues: ‘As long as the standard for air warfare is a fifth-generation fighter jet, and as long as aircraft carriers remain critical to projecting naval power, there will be a relatively small number of countries able to manufacture cutting-edge weapons platforms. But with AI, the barriers to entry are lower, meaning that middle powers could leverage algorithms to enhance their training, planning, and, eventually, their weapons systems. That means AI could offer more countries the ability to compete in more arenas alongside the heavy hitters.’ Horowitz even goes as far as to say that it is ‘possible, though unlikely, that AI will propel emerging powers and smaller countries to the forefront of defense innovation while leaving old superpowers behind’”.
The festival has had the huge advantage of bringing all these problems to the forefront in a region still obsessed by the idea of “factory” and “manufacturing”. Fortunately, the simultaneous news about the German crisis, the creation in Berlin of a Tesla plant, the FCA-PSA agreements which oresee the control by the French (and the Chinese) over the FCA group, the non solution of the crises of Embraco, Mahle, Pernigotti…have shown to everybody that, either Piedmont choses new types of specialisation , or it will disappear as an economic subject. The Technology kermess constitutes a tentative to go in the right direction.
The number and qualities of the interventions on all matters concerning the connection between technology and society have been exceptional. The historical and philosophical trends of the digital civilisation have been outlined, i.a,, by Elena Loewenthal, Laura Curino, Massimo Leone, Luca Peyron, Davide Sisto, Dario Voltolini, Derrick de Kerkhove, Gaetano di Tondo, Pier Paolo Peruccio, Vincenzo Giorgio, Denis Maggiorotto, Eleonora Monge, Valerio di Tana, Giancarlo Genta, Paolo Riberi, Claudio Allocchio, Elia Bellussi, Vittorio Bertola, Andrea Casalegno, Arturo di Corinto, Francesco Ruggiero, Marcello Fois, Giuseppe Cambiano, Christian Greco, Cecilia Pennaccini.
The philosophical and political challenges of digital technologies has been outlined by Pierluigi Fagan, Stefano Quintarelli, Geert Lovink, Steve Graham, Simone Arcagni, Ugo Pagallo, Niculae Sebe, Tommaso Valletti, Enrico Donaggio, Franco Bernabè, Marcello Chiaberge, Viola Schiaffonati, Gianmarco Veruggio, Paolo Benanti, Marina Geymonat, Alessandro Montelero, Carlo Blangino, Francesco Garibaldo, Tatiana Mazali, Nicola Scarlatelli, Juan Carlos De Martin, Cristofer Cepernich, Fabio Chiusi, Paolo Gerbaudo, Valeria Cirillo, Cinzia Minzolini, Giulio de Pietra, Deborah De Angeli, Enzo Mazza, Marco Ricolfi, Peppino Ortoleva, Stefano Geuna, Massimo Inguscio, Giammarco Molinari, Simona Morini.
A so wide range of speakers brings about obviously a wide spectrum of ideas and of positions. Unfortunately, the fact that all these specialists, representing an elite in our society, have been able to acquire their skills and renown having worked, directly or indirectly, for the digital giants, has unfortunately had a negative impact on their capability to be fully objective, and as critical as necessary, towards the obscure prospects of the ongoing trend towards the Society of Total Control.
This situation has been addressed openly by Carlos de Martin, who has recognized that, even in University, research on digital matters is financed mainly by the US giants. But this is just a part of a general landscape where all research is financed by multinational corporations, what explains the wide-ranging conformism of today’s culture.
Therefore, criticisms are always very prudent. Especially, nobody wants to arrive at any practical conclusion, from a cultural, historical, political and legislative point of view. Those, who, like we do, raise too many questions, are considered troubleshooters. Their questions are not properly addressed. I recall, among others, the questions concerning the proviso not to try to insert ethics into the programs for machines; European Digital Sovereignty (which, i.a., was supposed to be the object of the Decode Symposium); the need to define the concepts of digital revolution not only with reference to Western cultures, but also to the Eastern ones; technological unemployment; especially, the question of who will take care of all these matters at a European level.
The final mock trial, devoted to a “process to technology”, shows this excessive prudence. As the new Rector of the Politecnico, Guido Saracco, has stated candidly at the end, he could not, in his position, condemn technology.
- A European Sovereignty Strategy
Taking into account the links of European digital sovereignty with the Common External and Defence policy, ECFR has suggested that the new High Representative (Josep Borrell) is charged to work out a comprehensive strategy in this direction, but the mission letter of Ursula von der Leyn is much more prudent in this regard. Personally, I wonder whether the High Commissioner is the most appropriated subject for this coordination task, which, as said before, is multidisciplinary. In fact, as the ECFR writes: “Principally, any such strategy will need to integrate geo-economic and strategic policymaking. Currently, European economic governance purposefully ignores geopolitical considerations. So, for example, EU state aid rules make it difficult to channel support to emerging strategic industries such as AI, thereby allowing other powers to gain an advantage in such areas”.
From a professional point of view, Thierry Breton is more fit for the purpose, but his conflicts of interest might be an obstacle. These are the reasons why I expressed the above provocative suggestion to create a new Institution, instead of the may already existing and of the others which the European think tanks are suggesting. In fact, the solution proposed by ECFR is a network of inter-Commission committees for coordinating the different aspects of this tremendous challenge. First of all, a Strategic Sovereignty Committee within the European Commission and an EU Task Force on Strategic Industries and Technologies. Moreover, “in the economic realm, the EU needs to create a Financial Sanctions Enforcement Office and to ensure that all member states are represented on the board of the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges. The EU should also adopt asymmetric countermeasures by setting out a formal legal process for enforcing the EU Blocking Regulation through investigations into companies that withdraw from a country in response to non-European sanctions. The EU could mobilise its competition policy instruments to expand state aid control beyond European companies, and bolster the euro’s international role by fostering deep and integrated capital and banking markets, creating a euro area safe asset, and extending currency swap lines to partner central banks. The EU could improve its AI capacity by leveraging its significant regulatory power through shared, anonymised European databases for research, as well as an EU seal for ethical AI.
As it also needs an effective cyber security institution with centralised functions, Europe could transform the EU Agency for Network and Information Security to that end. An investigative service focusing on foreign interference would also be valuable. “
I may agree that, within the present framework, dominated by power struggles between member States and European Parties for the allotment of competences to their national Commissioners, a system of committees coordinated by somebody (why not, by the President) is probably the best result that may be achieved. However, this Commission should work out at least a new legal framework which puts “under the same umbrella”, among other things, a European Academy, the EFSI, the existing European Strategic Fund, a new European Intelligence, a European Investment Fund for ITC, a Regulator for the Digital industries. This agency should also rethink and coordinate according to a sole design the very numerous actions under way by the most different entities: international treaties for the regulation of digital; the EU regulations concerning data and robotics; antitrust concerning ITC; Internet tax; financing of EU digital industries and academic research.
Earlier this year, the European Council on Foreign Relations had commissioned YouGov to carry out surveys covering more than 60,000 people across Europe. These included finding out their views on the foreign policy challenges the EU faces. As ECFR writes, “The study reveals a fundamental shift in Europeans’ views of the world. Although there is widespread public support for the idea of the EU becoming a cohesive global actor, there is also a growing divergence between the public and the foreign policy community on several key issues – ranging from trade and the transatlantic relationship to EU enlargement. “The most shocking finding of the survey is that, contrary to what all the establishments constantly thought and said, a large majority of the citizens of all member states, in case of a conflict between US and Russia, would opt for neutrality.
Precisely for this reason is it necessary that the European digital system is disconnected, at least potentially, from the American one. The new Russian law follows precisely that path. Without impeding now the utilisation of the “American” World Wide Web by Russian users, it renders possible, in a case of conflict, to disconnect the Russian web from the general Internet, for the same reason that, since ever, in case of war, there has been always a military censorship on mails sent across the national borders.
Paradoxically, this is already the main reason of dispute between the EU and the USA in the digital sector. After that, in the Schrems Case, the European Court of Justice had condemned the Commission, obliging it to renegotiate with the US, in substitution of the Safe Harbour Agreement (not complying with the DGPR), the Commission had signed with the US a new agreement, the Privacy Shield, which was again not compliant, as declared by the European Parliament, and is giving rise to a new action in front of the Luxemburg Court. Why is it non compliant? Because, under the signed copy of the agreement, the US in any case the application of the agreement is subject to the US defence laws (which allow the secret services to have access, with a certain procedure, to the files stored in any part of the world, by US multinational). It is always an effect of the US “military censorship law” for the time of war, which has never been suspended because, from Word War I up to now, the US has never ceased to be at war against somebody. Under these circumstances, it is clear that the privacy of European citizens intellectual property of European Companies and the military secrets of European Armies will never be safe, until their data will be stored in Europe, by companies or public entities integrally subject to European Law. This renders many of the discussion under way about digital unrealistic, and emphasizes the urgency of an implementation of the ideas of Macron about European Digital Sovereignty.