Where does technological innovation happen? If you had to pick a place, Europe probably wouldn’t be your first choice. You’d think of Silicon Valley—home to Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and most of the world’s biggest tech platforms and apps. Or you’d think of Japan, with its robots and high-tech cars. Or you might think of China, with Alibaba, WeChat and Baidu literally conquering the world in recent years.
The recent success of companies like Spotify, Skype, Deliveroo and BlaBlaCar indicate Europe could increase its share of the pie in the near future. But at what cost?
Where technology has ventured, scandal has followed. Social media platforms have given us fake news, sold off our most intimate details, and influenced the way we think and vote. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: in China, people’s access to bank loans and even job promotions increasingly depend on “citizen scores” that are calculated on the basis of everything from purchases to online comment history.
Technology is not neutral. Behind the apparent mathematical accuracy of algorithms lies an all too familiar, human reality: that of bias and error. It is easy to forget that the modern software industry has come of age in a specific place, with its own history and way of seeing the world. Like any product, technology is shaped by the values, incentives, and culture of the humans who create it.
Amid growing concern over the dangers of technology, can Europe offer an alternative to the “big money, small government” philosophy promoted by Silicon Valley, or the state-led innovation spearheaded by China?
What could, and should, that approach look like?
To find out, this issue of our magazine gathers the perspectives of experts, programmers, executives and managers, and digital policy experts from all over Europe. From drones programmed to protect endangered species, to facial recognition software used to identify suspects, to the effects of AI on healthcare, it takes a look at over a dozen technologies that will fundamentally change the way we work, live, relate to each other, and govern our societies in the near future.
If Europe wants to innovate without sacrificing its values in a world governed by algorithms, it will have to find a way to combine innovation with freedom, justice, and individual rights. A tall order indeed—but a necessary one.
The Are We Europe Team
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This article appears in Are We Europe #5: Code of Conscience