A recent survey on Europeans’ attitudes towards technology found that Europeans see new technologies as a threat to society and to their jobs. An astounding 70 percent of Europeans believe that new technologies will cause more harm than good in the coming decade and 67 percent want the EU to tax companies that automate work. Yet at the same time, around half of EU adults under the age of 50 believe that the company they work for will disappear in the next decade if it does not implement “deep and fast” change (presumably not automation).
These are shocking numbers. When a large share of a voters actively opposes innovation, it becomes more difficult for firms and EU governments to support it. If the EU wants to become a global leader in new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), it will need to do more than issue whitepapers and expand some R&D programs: It will need to embark on a major campaign to help EU residents understand the importance of technological innovation to their future. In short, the EU needs to transform “gloom and doom” into “hope and optimism.”
One place to start is for policymakers to stop hyperventilating about “fourth industrial revolutions,” “exponential rates of change,” and “unprecedented technological disruptions.” Besides being wrong and overblown, such framing only inflames fear. What rational person wants to live in a constant state of socio-technical upheaval, no matter the long-term benefit? To the extent EU officials talk about emerging technologies, it should be in the context of “Don’t panic,” as a new EU report on the future of work writes. Even better would be a narrative that says, “Let’s go.”
Second, the EU needs to foster more awareness of technology. For example, nearly half of Europeans do not know what algorithms are or that they are already in use in numerous areas of life. However, research shows the more Europeans know about algorithms, the more they associate them with benefits rather than problems. Likewise, the facts support technological optimism, such as showing that automation will create more jobs than it will eliminate. EU policymakers should also lead the effort to debunk myths and fears about AI. For example, the European Commission could initiate information campaigns to raise awareness on how AI is used by working with businesses to articulate more clearly the value their technology offers.
Third, the EU needs to invest more in digital skills and education. If more Europeans had access to training programs for digital skills, they would be less likely to fear technological innovation. Indeed, 90 percent of jobs already require at least basic digital skills. Unfortunately, close to half Europe’s population does not have basic digital skills. To address this, the EU should expand access to European education programs that equip students with skills and experience matching the labor market’s future needs, such as the Erasmus+’s Digital Opportunity Traineeships. The EU should encourage member states to mainstream efforts to integrate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in curriculums at the national and local level as well. It should increase its support to existing grass-root initiatives such as EU Code Week, which can lead to concrete, long-lasting partnerships between employers, employees, and educators that provide more opportunities for upskilling to professionals through activities such as coding.
But there are many examples in Europe where governments are making things worse. France has downgraded the importance of STEM by making math a non-compulsory subject in high school. The UK government’s recent paper on disinformation referred to tech firms as “digital gangsters,” hardly the kinds of firms anyone would want to embrace. And German Justice Minister Katarina Barley recently echoed U.S. Senator Warren’s rhetoric aiming to “break up big tech.” Such discourses sow public mistrust in technology and will make it harder to attract European workers to STEM fields.
There is a better way. Finland, for example, has been advocating the importance of an “independently informed public” and “open and inclusive debates” about AI, and has set a much needed positive tone for its forthcoming presidency of the EU. And a positive tone, needs to be backed up with positive actions. Only by sharing and spreading a positive narrative around technology and by investing in knowledge and education can the EU alleviate the fears of its population and ensure a climate conducive to competitiveness in the digital economy.
Despite rampant “tech-lash,” EU consumers have not turned their back on the use of digital services and online platforms. According to a 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, the tech sector remains the most trusted industry. But that needs to be translated into broader support for technological innovation. If it fails to do so, the EU will face a very stiff headwind in progressing with new digital technologies.