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Ex-Google chief: European tech ‘not big enough’ to compete with China alone – POLITICO.eu


Europe needs the U.S.’s help if it wants to compete with China on artificial intelligence, according to the former CEO of Google Eric Schmidt.

In an interview with POLITICO, Schmidt, who chairs the U.S. National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI), said Europe is “simply not big enough on the platform side” to compete. “Europe will need to partner with the United States on these key platforms,” Schmidt said, referring to the large tech companies that the U.S. government is relying on to develop AI technologies.

Schmidt also criticized how Europe is going about regulating AI, which some style as a “third way” between China’s state-led and the U.S.’s light-touch approaches.

“Europe is not going to be successful doing its own third way,” Schmidt said, casting doubt on the EU’s broader moves toward so-called technological sovereignty, which focuses on boosting local digital industry that would compete with both U.S. and Chinese rivals.

Europe’s search for a third way is also clear in its approach to AI regulation, in which the EU seeks to boost innovation in a “human-centric” and privacy-friendly way. The bloc is about to unveil its AI rules this spring, which will set limits on “high risk” AI applications — in stark contrast to the self-regulatory route chosen by the U.S.

Europe has reached out to the U.S. to work together on a number of issues, including AI, after the election of U.S. President Joe Biden. But it hasn’t spelled out how it plans to square its tech sovereignty strategy with the closer collaboration it’s looking for.

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Even as Schmidt recommended Washington work with Europe on AI in multiple international forums including the OECD and the Council of Europe, he said he hadn’t heard much of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s proposal for a “Transatlantic AI Accord.”

“We didn’t talk about it, because I don’t think we knew very much about it,” Schmidt said.

Common ground

Schmidt’s pitch is that a common fear of China’s rapid technological gains should help the U.S. and the EU overcome their “regulatory differences” on issues including privacy and trade.

In late February, Schmidt estimated that China is only a few years behind the U.S. in developing artificial intelligence technologies.

To that end, the NSCAI was established in 2018 to advise the government on how to develop AI and boost national security to beat adversaries. The NSCAI’s other members include senior executives from Microsoft, Google and Oracle, as well as Amazon’s incoming chief executive Andy Jassy.  

One of the key recommendations in a report it issued on Monday — which also recommended boosting funding and attracting talent — is the need for the U.S. to seek partnerships that are consistent with “democratic values,” highlighting that the U.S. also ought to seek allies to counter Beijing.

On paper, that should be Europe. In addition to sharing similar values, the bloc also has a “lot of really smart people, and they have a lot of money,” Schmidt said.

But differences on privacy, trade and national security are driving a wedge between the two. Washington and Brussels are in the midst of thorny negotiations around data sharing. In July last year, Europe’s highest court struck down the transatlantic data flows deal, known as Privacy Shield, because it ruled American privacy rules do not meet Europe’s data protection standards.

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Still, the U.S and the EU should focus on making “the free flow of innovation in these areas as free as possible, [there should be] as much data access as possible, and as much cross-Atlantic ownership as possible,” Schmidt said.

Let’s work through this

To boost multilateral collaboration, the NSCAI wants to create an “Emerging Technology Coalition” that would develop global standards and norms. “We should work hand in hand to promote democracy and human rights, exploring ways to facilitate data sharing among all of the allies and partners and promoting and protecting innovation,” said Robert Work, the NSCAI’s vice chair and former deputy secretary of defense, who served under the Obama and Trump administrations.

“There are currently barriers that are set up between Europe and the United States for various complicated reasons, including privacy, trade restrictions, national security,” Schmidt said. “We’re not suggesting to eliminate them. We’re trying to suggest streamline them as appropriate.”

Divergent data protection rules, for instance, should not “prevent AI collaboration.”

“The recommendation was not that you get rid of one or the other, but that you examine how you could encourage data sharing. It’s in mutual interests of both sides to have more data sharing for national security,” he said.

The NSCAI report recommends the proposed Emerging Technology Coalition lead negotiations on a new transatlantic data sharing deal, and stressed that data sharing agreements for specific purposes, such as facilitating pandemic response efforts, “would have a greater chance of success” than a more general deal. 

Schmidt and Work said they were looking to travel to Brussels as soon as the pandemic lets them.

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