The aim is therefore to find other levers than legislation to impact the development of technology. If competitiveness is not everything (hopefully, all in the world is not about figures and market shares), in the case of technology, it has great consequences. Indeed, the spread of technology is about just that: the better product at the cheapest price will spread faster than the lesser, more expensive one. In the end, a technology that spreads (to users or to companies alike) is one that influences. To be influencers and spread messages we like, we have to find ways to make our products competitive, so that we can design ourselves the technologies that will create value and influence the development of technology.
Making Europe competitive: investing in research and deployment
One way to make our products competitive is to lower the cost for private actors to innovate and facilitate their dissemination. What is the European Commission doing to reach that goal? The European Commission’s programmes to foster innovation and the adoption of technology were presented by Mr Khalil Rouhana, Deputy Director-General at the European Commission Directorate-General for Communication Networks, Content and Technology. These focus on research and innovation on the one end, and on the deployment of technology on the other.
First, there is a large research and innovation investment programme, Horizon Europe, to succeed the now ending Horizon 2020 programme. In total € 100 billion will be made available over the years 2021 - 2027 to foster the emergence of technological breakthroughs. Second, there is the Digital Europe Programme, which, over the same period 2021-2027, focuses on building digital infrastructures and facilitating the deployment of technologies in Europe (such as 5G or artificial intelligence). This € 9,2 billion investment program will be divided into five areas: € 2.7 billion will go to supercomputers, € 2.5 billion to AI, € 2 billion to cybersecurity, € 0.7 to enhancing digital skills and finally € 1.3 billion for ensuring the wide use of digital technologies across the economy and society.
Of course, these impressive figures have to be compared with investments from overseas actors. A PricewaterhouseCoopers study shows that, In 2018, Amazon alone invested $ 22,6 billion in research and development; Alphabet, $ 16,2 billion. Nevertheless, the amounts invested by such companies should not undermine the European Commission’s efforts. At this point it is important to stress some of its results. As an example, in the field of supercomputers, the European High-Performance Computing Joint Undertaking’s objective is to develop top-of-the-range exascale computers (computers that can execute one billion billion - 1018 - calculations per second). With this long-term objective in view, three centers in Europe (Barcelona, Bologna and Kajaani) have been selected to host three large supercomputers, with a capacity of 150 to 200 petaFLOPS (1015 operations per second). Coherent with the general strategy of the Digital Europe Programme, the aim from 2021 onwards will be to make this computing power available for independent projects.
More public effort will be necessary
Therefore, the European Commission’s achievements must be lauded, whilst keeping in mind that such efforts, both in terms of financing and network building, must continue and increase in the foreseeable future. Margaret O’Mara’s book, The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America reminds us of the role of the American government in encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship in the early 1960s. As one example, the 1958 Small Business Investment Act gave the opportunity to all companies registering under the Small Business Investment Company (SBIC) status to access funding: for each dollar invested, the US government would give 3 in long-term loans. Although the programme was shut down shortly after (it was too costly), it shows the mindset that influenced industrial policy in the early days of the contemporary technology industry and set the grounds for the emergence of a vibrant innovation economy. Today, we find similar methods in Europe (with different proportions) with projects such as the QuantERA initiative, a network of 31 organisations from 26 countries supporting international research projects in the field of Quantum Technologies (QT). To finance this project, the European Commission invests 1/3 of the amounts put in by individual participants.
States playing the role of private companies
Intense public spending is necessary in the field of emerging technologies in Europe. Because European companies have missed the information and communication technologies (ICTs) revolution, Europe does not have private actors with a capacity to invest heavily in groundbreaking research such as artificial intelligence or quantum computing. As mentioned earlier, the consequences of these emerging technologies can be profound for the way information is processed and therefore impact a Nation’s safety. In the case of quantum computing, making sure these technologies exist inside the European Union is a matter of national security: quantum computing will be needed to protect information that affects European citizens (in the military, the energy sector, the economy, etc.).