This article appeared in Techonomy’s Spring 2019 magazine.
After nearly two years in Palo Alto as Denmark’s first tech ambassador, I’ve become quite familiar with two questions: What’s your value proposition? And, what does success look like?
Fair enough. After all, Silicon Valley runs on venture capital and the ability of a few very smart people to pick the next billion-dollar idea. Yet, as a career diplomat who has spent decades in conflict or war zones, I’m still working on my 90-second elevator pitch. What do new technologies mean for the complexities of foreign relations? How will AI shift global balances of power? And how do we craft effective, reasonable policies at a time when governance is under increasing pressure from the digital revolution? These are hard questions with no simple answers. But let’s start with the basics.
In 2017, the Danish government elevated technology and digitalization to a foreign and security policy priority. The initiative was named technological diplomacy, or #TechPlomacy.
It builds on the idea that in today’s increasingly digital world, new technologies such as AI, big data, the internet of things and blockchain transcend borders with unprecedented speed, and are transforming all sectors of society.
In this age, a handful of successful multinational tech companies have become extremely influential – to the extent that their economic and political influence match or surpass that of our traditional partners, the nation-states. Conversely, it’s increasingly difficult for policymakers to keep up with the impact of new technologies.
For a government to rely solely on traditional diplomatic relations to bring home knowledge, promote its interests, and safeguard values abroad no longer seems sufficient.
That’s why Denmark became the first country to establish a dedicated diplomatic mission to technology, and create my position as Tech Ambassador. We have a global mandate, and a team, that spans Silicon Valley, Europe, and China. The basic mission: To provide a platform for a regular (and frank) dialogue with today’s most influential private entities. Instead of going, as a traditional ambassador might, to the State Department or the White House, we go to the headquarters of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Alibaba, Tencent and so on.
The TechPlomacy initiative is fundamentally an optimistic one. Our mission isn’t to over-regulate industry, or to restrict innovation. As a small, advanced economy and one of the most digitized countries in the world, we have as much at stake as any nation. But we also cannot be blind to the dark side of technology. We desperately need a more balanced and human-centered approach that maximizes opportunities for innovation while safeguarding fundamental democratic values and societal institutions. This is only achievable if industry and governments work much closer together.
The sense of urgency becomes even greater if we zoom out to the global level. The US and China are in a fierce battle for technological supremacy. As someone who divides much of his time between Silicon Valley, Beijing and Brussels, the contours of the new world order are striking. In 2017, nearly half of the world’s venture capital investments in AI went to China, around 40 percent to the US, and the remaining 12 percent to the rest of the world – including Europe! While American companies and researchers have led in the discovery age of AI, Chinese companies will likely lead in its real-life application.
Europe, on the other hand, has proven willing to enact regulation that aims to balance technological and societal considerations, and is rapidly emerging as the de facto epicenter of global tech policy. In its current proposal for a new European Approach to AI, the European Commission not only suggests boosting investments in research and application. But it also calls for putting in place the necessary legal and ethical frameworks to ensure AI really benefits society.
So far, in Silicon Valley and Beijing, it’s been a mixed ride. Some companies have been enormously open to dialogue. Others have been more reluctant to engage in uncomfortable political discussions. We still need to see a higher level of responsibility from multinational tech companies, one that corresponds to their size and influence in society.
But one of our goals was to inspire other national governments. Already, we’ve seen Germany, France, and Slovakia appoint digital ambassadors. Each has differing mandates, but all are based on the same realization that we need to engage industry in a more structured way. In April 2019, we managed to bring together tech & cyber ambassadors from 22 countries in Silicon Valley for discussions with industry – for the first time ever. And the United Nations and European Union have also elevated the importance of technology and digitalization in their efforts to promote peace and security, global development and human rights.
Second, a number of tech companies are increasingly bringing forward ideas of their own on how to bridge the gap between technology and regulation. Most recently, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote a Washington Post op-ed that outlined an early vision for government regulation. Apple’s CEO is calling for federal privacy regulation in the US. And Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, has pretty much nailed the issues facing us: “It cannot be left to the CEOs of tech companies arbitrating the policies for the world. It’s a strange position to put four or five of us in. Nobody elected us.” I completely agree.
Statements from CEOs like Zuckerberg are a helpful first step. But the challenge here is that governments and international organizations have insufficient insights and knowledge about how the platforms are working. This makes tailored and balanced regulation difficult.
More transparency is required. Tech companies do need to assume a higher degree of responsibility for the kind of impact they are having on established institutions and societies around the world. International organizations such as the UN—as well as civil society and research institutions—need to play their important part in bringing new solutions to the table. And governments need to step up to the plate and invest more resources in promoting a human-centered approach to technology, grounded in democratic values.
In a complex world you need multi-stakeholder alliances. That’s what TechPlomacy is all about.
Casper Klynge is Denmark’s Tech Ambassador.