Guest Feature

How Democracies Can Win the Tech Race

By Business & Finance
05 April 2024
Picture: a car simbolisyng the tech race

Winning the race for future technologies demands a united front. That is why the United States and the European Union must continue to shape standards and regulations in emerging sectors, while also joining forces on research and development programs and large “moonshot” projects.

By Ylli Bajraktari and André Loesekrug-Pietri

ARLINGTON/BERLIN – The world is on the precipice of a technological cold war. As authoritarian regimes develop new digital tools that endanger open societies and threaten democratic values, the West must decide whether to compete or concede. Today, the battle for freedom is being fought in Ukraine; but the frontline could one day be in Taiwan, a global technology hub, producing the world’s most advanced microchips, and a flourishing democracy less than 100 miles off the coast of China, which seems bent on annexing the island.

Winning the race for future technologies demands a united front. Just as the West came together to deter Soviet expansionism and stop the spread of communism in the postwar period, the United States and the European Union must revitalize the transatlantic alliance to win the competition for global tech leadership. That means developing a new joint strategy, pooling resources and capabilities, streamlining regulations, and leveraging their strengths – such as advanced tools for semiconductors and lasers, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and genomics in Europe, and fusion energy, commercial space operations, and synthetic biology in the US.

It will also be necessary to build resilient supply chains. With China dominating the supply of metals and rare-earth elements necessary for batteries, semiconductors, and other technologies, the US and the EU are sleepwalking into a critical-minerals crisis. For example, China’s market share of high-powered permanent magnets for offshore wind turbines is nearly 90%.

Lastly, both the US and the EU must focus their efforts on achieving new breakthroughs in vital sectors, including AI, biotech, advanced networks, clean energy, and the manufacturing technologies of tomorrow. To that end, the US CHIPS Act and the European Chips Act offer a blueprint – or at least the beginnings of one – for bolstering competitiveness in the next big technologies.

Cooperation on technology is not new. From the Council of Europe in Strasbourg to the International Telecommunication Union in Geneva, from the OECD to the European AI Act, the race to artificial intelligence seems sometimes to be a policymaking race, to control and coordinate it – and rightly so, in some cases. For example, the main risks identified by the interim report of the UN’s AI Advisory Body include risks to the stability of financial systems and to critical infrastructure, as well as strains on the environment, climate, and natural resources.

These issues are too important to be overlooked. In a recent report, the French AI Commission called for the creation of a World AI Organization to “evaluate and oversee AI systems.” This could be a good idea, but it is not the only way to move forward. After all, the existence of the WHO is fundamental, but while it has played a vital role in the eradication of some diseases, it did not prevent the COVID-19 pandemic.

Moreover, regulation should be a means to an end, not an end in itself. Despite the so-called Brussels effect, the EU’s alleged ability to set global standards, the bloc’s landmark regulations on electric vehicles or the General Data Protection Regulation have hardly made the EU a superpower in electric mobility or in data privacy. That is why transatlantic cooperation should be broadened to include research and development programs and large “moonshot” projects.

Just as sanctions alone have not curbed Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, regulation will not be enough to prevent bad actors from misusing AI. Similarly, the West will have to go on the offensive against China’s techno-authoritarian model. Sharing intelligence can identify supply-chain vulnerabilities and facilitate “friend-shoring.” In addition to developing technological ecosystems with like-minded partners, it will be crucial for US and EU policymakers to expose short-sighted private ventures that play into the hands of those who see technology as a tool of oppression, not liberation.

Moreover, the US and the EU cannot expect to win the technology race – which is also a war of ideas – when their citizens have been herded into social-media echo chambers, and when 44% of children globally use TikTok. On this cognitive battlefield, the West must lead the charge to develop technologies that encourage critical thinking and protect privacy, and to stop the destabilizing fragmentation of the digital sphere and the spread of online hate and disinformation.

A revitalized transatlantic alliance must ensure that emerging technologies reflect democratic principles and boost strategic autonomy. Forging partnerships with like-minded countries, including Australia, India, Japan, and South Korea, and enhancing cooperation among the G7 and the OECD could support these efforts. Together, they could develop an alternative model of technological empowerment – free of digital repression and authoritarianism – for developed and developing countries alike.

Western leaders should take inspiration from the COVID-19 vaccines, which, building on collaboration, massive experimentation, and decades of fundamental science, were developed in a record eight months. We must keep this spirit alive. Democracies risk being outmaneuvered in the technologies that will shape the future, with dire economic and security consequences. A robust transatlantic tech partnership is an imperative. The destiny of free and open societies depends on it.

© Project Syndicate 1995–2024

About the author: Ylli Bajraktari, a former chief of staff to the US National Security Adviser and a former executive director of the US National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, is CEO of the Special Competitive Studies Project.
About the author: André Loesekrug-Pietri is Chairman and Scientific Director of the Joint European Disruptive Initiative, the European advanced research projects agency.


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