Toby Melville - WPA Pool/Getty Images
show image

Former MI6 chief issues warning over Europe’s dependence on foreign tech

Europe’s failure to compete with the United States and China on technology is weakening its position in the world, according to the former head of MI6.

Speaking in London on Wednesday (9 October), Sir John Sawers, who led the spy agency between 2009 and 2014, said the continent’s dependence on foreign technology is undermining its power.

“Europe looks less relevant and less powerful,” Sawers told delegates at Digital Transformation Expo. “Certainly when we fail to develop the sort of global tech companies that both the United States and China have developed, well Europe is in a weaker position.”

The former spy chief described the rise of a new era of “great power rivalries” in which “military might becomes more important” than the rules and regulations upon which Europe “has thrived”. “[This era] favours countries like America, China and Russia.”

In 2017, the Russian president Vladimir Putin predicted that whichever country becomes the leader in artificial intelligence “will become the ruler of the world”. Citing the quote, Sawers said that Putin “knows a thing or two about power” and doesn’t “say those sort of things lightly”.

He added: “This battle for dominance and mastery of machine learning, of artificial intelligence, is going to become a very central part of the great power rivalry.”

In a press conference after his speech, Sawers praised the work carried out at DeepMind, a Google-owned AI research centre in London, but warned that Europe’s slow progress on technology meant it was going to be “increasingly dependent” on other countries for security, “above all the United States at a time when the United States is less attentive to the interests of its allies”.

Sawers, who now advises the private sector, also weighed in on the debate surrounding Huawei. The security risks posed by the Chinese telecoms equipment provider could be mitigated, he said, so long as network operators do not become overly dependent on the company’s kit. The position reflects that of the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre; the European Union also warned on Wednesday of the risks of over-dependence on individual suppliers.