Meet the woman researching the geopolitics of technology

30 Mar 2022

Alice Pannier. Image: Kaveh Sardari

Alice Pannier is leading a new programme looking at the relationship between technology and geopolitical alliances. Recent events have proven this to be more important than ever.

The world of technology is not immune from external geopolitical factors, a fact that has been brought into the spotlight in recent months due to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Ever since Russia invaded the country, there have been streams of cyberattacks as well as strong responses from the world’s tech giants.

But the geopolitical side of tech does not only come into focus for something as large as a full-scale invasion playing out on a world stage. For years, the rocky relationship between the US and China, for example, has caused serious ramifications within the world of tech from subsea cables to telecoms.

In order to get a better understanding of how the geopolitical sphere plays into the world of tech and vice versa, I spoke to Alice Pannier, head of Ifri’s geopolitics of technology programme.

Ifri is the French institute of international relations. It launched its geopolitics of technology programme in October 2020 to respond to international issues related to critical technologies such as AI, 5G, cybersecurity, semiconductors and robotics.

‘As everyone is competing for technology, everyone is increasingly interdependent through technology’

Prior to her current role, Pannier had already been working on European foreign policy, security and defence for several years.

She then moved to the US for a research and teaching position during the years that Donald Trump was president, which she said was the time that “the whole US-China rivalry started really taking shape”. This time also saw changes in transatlantic relations with the EU and UK due to Brexit.

“Then when I decided to come back to France, I was also looking to broaden my personal research focus, and not solely focus on defence matters because I understood that foreign policy perspective, that was no longer sufficient or relevant enough.”

The geopolitics of technology programme Pannier now leads is trying to develop European perspectives on international technology issues as well as global governance, EU regulations and transatlantic efforts. She said that one of the key problems for Europeans is digital sovereignty and what that means.

“So there, we look at ecosystems that exist in Europe, value chains, investments, public policy, industrial policy that can be developed to try and aim towards [digital sovereignty],” she said.

On a broader societal dimension, the programme also aims to look at things like health data in the context of Covid-19, the impact of technology on the environment as well as ways it can help fight the climate crisis, along with more specific areas of tech and their implications such as military innovations and autonomous weapons.

Current affairs

The work of the programme is mainly to look at the potential geopolitical effects of technology as well as the technological effects of geopolitical discourse.

Given the recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia, I asked Pannier about the knock-on effects of such a massive global incident.

“Science and technology have been included in the package of sanctions taken against Russia following the invasion of Ukraine. Specifically, new scientific cooperation projects have been suspended and some existing partnerships have been terminated, such as the 10-year-old partnership between the MIT and Skoltech,” she said.

“When it comes to technological sanctions, the EU and the US have agreed measures to forbid the export of certain technologies to Russia, including components for the air, space and oil industries, and the import of technology from Russia.

“For its part, Russia has also taken science and technology sanctions against western countries, for instance by cancelling new satellite launches relying on the Soyuz rockets, with direct impact on European missions.”

Pannier also said the invasion and subsequent sanctions are likely to have a structural impact as both Russia and western countries look for alternative providers. “This could lead to a tightening of Russia-China links and Europe-US links, which could create new dependencies for both Europe and Russia, on the US and China respectively.”

A patchwork of complex elements

One of the biggest challenges in addressing the ramifications of tech is trying to balance those ramifications with the ever-increasing need for that same tech.

Pannier said this is clear in most elements of the technology sphere. Technology is needed to improve cybersecurity posture, but technology itself also creates a greater attack surface.

‘I don’t think we’ve come to the end of what needs to be regulated’

“With the technology competition, at the same time as everyone is competing for technology, everyone is increasingly interdependent through technology. So, I don’t think there is any single risk or solution to those risks. I think it’s just a patchwork of many interdependent elements.”

While there are many areas of tech that have already seen regulation, debate and proposed legislation in Europe, such as data privacy and AI, Pannier said there is still a long way to go in all of these areas because they’re constantly evolving.

Just last week, a new framework for transatlantic data transfers and storage was agreed in principle by EU and US leaders, potentially ending a long debate about how companies can move data between these jurisdictions.

“I don’t think we’ve come to the end of what needs to be regulated or that we found all the answers,” she said.

Pannier also said one of the major barriers to solving global issues is how much the multilateral way of dealing with challenges is being weakened to the point where countries are often “fending for themselves” on certain issues, something that was particularly clear during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I think we might find ourselves within 20 years having to deal with new technology that creates a lot of new risks and challenges for security or human rights and that we haven’t got a common recipe for dealing with,” she said.

“We need to look back at the second half of the 20th century, at international treaties that were signed, for example, surrounding nuclear weapons. I think this is kind of the grand governance effort that we will need in the future that we’re lacking totally due to current relations between the US, Russia and China, preventing any kind of coming to the table to deal with technology.”

She added that while more joined-up thinking is needed, there are some subgroups and more specific alliances around the world that are working in this way such as the EU-US Trade and Technology Council.

“It remains to be seen whether what’s coming next is the solidification of those subgroups and subregional initiatives and interest-based alliances as well technology partnerships, resource partnerships, etc, to ensure the security of supply chains.”

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.

Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic