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Digital anxiety and urgency

By DONG YIFAN | China Daily Global | Updated: 2020-07-07 08:29


COVID-19 has forced the EU to seek a balance between data protection and use

In February, the European Commission released a white paper on artificial intelligence and a European data strategy, which are the latest plans of the European Union for the development of digital-related industries. The paper proposes a new European "data concept" which combines individual rights and market values and is expected to create a "European data space" that is conducive to the effective and safe use of data by governments, enterprises, research institutions, consumers, etc.

The EU has also taken some measures to give a green light to some technologies that were regarded as taboos in the past, such as canceling the comprehensive ban on the application of facial recognition technology. Thierry Breton, the European Commissioner for internal market and services, said that the EU hopes that local institutions, including enterprises, will make full use of European data to create value and develop AI applications to maintain their industrial status, economic competitiveness and technology and data sovereignty.

In addition, the European industrial strategy released by the European Commission in March also mentioned a large number of topics such as Europe's grasp of digital opportunities, the development of intelligent manufacturing, cloud computing, and the promotion of digital transformation in traditional manufacturing industries. As Financial Times commented, compared with previous EU digital strategy documents, the white paper on AI and the European data strategy have weakened the emphasis on technical risks and values in order to seek a new balance between economic benefits and governance.

Although the EU continues to promote the digital economy and its related industries, its starting point and development speed are still relatively low. The outbreak of the novel coronavirus has largely exposed the gap between the European digital economy and related technology applications and the world's leading edge.

In the fight against the pandemic, China has widely applied big data to assessing people's health status, mobilizing transportation and logistics, and other things. AI is used to track and predict outbreaks, provide health counseling and so on. All these technologies are playing an irreplaceable role in information exchanges, resource mobilization and medical system support.

However, after the COVID-19 outbreak in the EU, especially after many countries adopted the measures of city lockdowns or closing the country, the application of digital technology and the development depth of digital economy were not enough to meet the explosive needs of the government, enterprises and the public. For example, the restrictions on the collection and use of data make the basic biological data unable to support the sample demand for vaccine research and development; the lack of sufficient bandwidth means the EU has to require Netflix and Amazon and others to ensure the office network speed by limiting network traffic; the expansion of online shopping business in traditional retail industry in Italy, Spain and other countries has also encountered challenges due to insufficient logistics and order processing.

In fact, because European countries have long been accustomed to traditional consumption patterns such as cash transactions and shopping in physical stores, although the pandemic has greatly increased the demand for digital services, it is difficult to make up for the gap overnight. The ratio of online retail accounting for total retail is respectively 10 percent, 5 percent and 4 percent in France, Italy and Spain, far from the 36 percent in China. The annual food delivery market size is less than $1 billion in Italy and Spain, and many mobile applications based on data learning in Europe cannot be commercialized for failing to meet the existing data regulatory requirements.

During the pandemic, the EU has realized that its cautious stance on the digital industry in the past may not meet its development needs in this field. Therefore, the EU institutions and enterprises are actively promoting the practical application of digital technology. The white paper on AI has proposed to use massive data from the EU to train AI and cultivate independent development capabilities. The European Commission has also recently proposed that, it is necessary to use EU funds to support supercomputers to develop drug treatments for COVID-19. In the business field, in the first week of March, the doorto-door delivery in France increased by 29 percent year-on-year. Traditional supermarkets, such as Carrefour, are also looking for logistics companies to provide online shopping services.

The digital economy is of great significance to the security, online office, medical and health information exchanges during the pandemic and afterward. Digital technology plays a role in preventing and controlling COVID-19, source tracking of infection, distribution of medical resources and even virus research.

The explosive growth of the EU's demand in this field will become a new driving force for cooperation. In the fight against the pandemic, China's digital technology has demonstrated its outstanding strength and potential. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has listed "DingTalk" as the recommended online education app. The World E-Trade Platform, a digital logistics scheduling system established by Alibaba, is working closely with the Liege region in Belgium to coordinate air transportation and China-Europe freight trains to transport large quantities of anti-pandemic medical materials to Europe. More opportunities are just around the corner. We hope that the participation of Chinese enterprises and technologies can successfully match the strategic direction of EU digital development and achieve the effect of"1+1>2".

The author is an assistant researcher with the Institute of European Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.


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