Emerging technology could make China the world’s next innovation superpower  

Emerging technology could make China the world’s next innovation superpower   
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During China’s 19th Party Congress in October, President Xi Jinping placed innovation at the center of China’s national strategy. His remarks called for building China into a “science and technology superpower,” particularly as an “aerospace superpower” and “cyber superpower.” He highlighted notable achievements, including Mozi, the world’s first quantum satellite, and China’s space lab, Tiangong.

His remarks underscored that, under his leadership, China has pursued a strategy of innovation-driven development and sought to leverage the potential of the internet, big data and artificial intelligence (AI). If successful, China’s emergence as a leading power in innovation could shift the strategic balance.

Xi Jinping has recognized that innovation is a critical determinant of national power and competitiveness. This techno-nationalism is not new, but rather there is a long history of China’s pursuit of indigenous innovation. The “Two Bombs, One Satellite” project of the 1960s and ‘70s, through which China built its first atomic bomb, hydrogen bomb and satellites — at a time when such achievements seemed well beyond its reach — remains a resonant historical example of successful “moonshot” projects that enhanced national power. Today, China is devoting itself to a similarly ambitious agenda through a series of mega-projects, including in artificial intelligence and quantum information science, while avidly pursuing advances in such strategic emerging technologies as nanotechnology and biotechnology.

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China has declared its intention to lead the world in AI by 2030, seeking to become the “premier global AI innovation center.” The New Generation AI Development Plan, reportedly a multibillion-dollar initiative, charts an ambitious course to build a $150 billion AI industry by 2030. The plan will also support research and development of next-generation AI technologies that could result in paradigm shifts in the field, including brain-inspired neural network architectures and quantum-accelerated machine learning.

 

To date, China has established new national engineering laboratories focused on deep learning, virtual and augmented reality, and brain-inspired intelligence, along with over a dozen for big data technologies and applications.

Concurrently, China is positioning itself to lead the second quantum revolution, which will enable such transformative technologies as quantum communications, quantum computing, and quantum metrology. Within the foreseeable future, China’s most sensitive military, government, and commercial communications could be secured through quantum cryptography. Chinese scientists are also striving to reach the forefront of the global advances in quantum computing, looking to achieve the milestone of quantum supremacy as soon as 2018.

China is also building the National Laboratory for Quantum Information Science, which will become the world’s largest quantum research facility. This new national laboratory will pursue advances in quantum computing and reportedly engage in research “of immediate use” to China’s military. 

Traditionally, innovation has been a core aspect of U.S. national competitiveness and military power, but today the U.S. confronts the risk of an “innovation deficit” due to declining investment in basic science. Certainly, such dynamic innovation ecosystems as Silicon Valley and Boston remain critical centers of innovation. However, the time horizons — and resources — of the private sector often don’t extend to such ambitious “moonshot” projects as China is now pursuing. Historically, the U.S. government has played a vital role in enabling innovation, whether in the space race or the invention of the Internet. As international competition in critical disruptive technologies intensifies, the trajectory of American leadership will again depend on our ability to leverage such strategic competition as an impetus for rapid advances.

In response to China’s emergence as an innovation superpower, the U.S. must pursue a long-term, whole-of-nation strategy to ensure future competitiveness. The U.S. should take action to mitigate illicit and problematic technology transfers, such as through the proposed reforms to CFIUS. 

However, being on the defensive is not enough. The U.S. must actively invest in key technological domains integral to future economic dynamism and military power — including artificial intelligence, quantum information science, and biotechnology — while leveraging public-private partnerships.

Since talent remains a key aspect of American advantage, it is vital for the U.S. to continue to compete to attract the world’s top talent.

The U.S. must also focus on education and training to create a robust human capital pipeline. In the AI revolution, data, too, is a strategic resource, and its availability, as determined by policy and regulatory parameters, a key enabler of innovation.

Looking forward, the future prospects for U.S. power will depend this decision: the choice of whether to compete, or risk ceding technological dominance to an ambitious rising power.

Elsa B. Kania is an adjunct fellow with the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, where her research focuses on Chinese defense innovation and emerging technologies.