Should Certain Technological Applications of China be Emulated?
Col Pradeep Jaidka
Introduction

For many centuries, China was credited with four inventions - papermaking, compass, gunpowder, and printing. Since its formation in 1949, the PRC has endeavoured to imbibe and improve on modern technologies and in some cases, transcended achievements of the western world.

Consequent upon China entering the global economy scene in 1990s, the PRC hierarchy increased its emphasis on research and development in science and technology (S&T). China emerged as a serious contender in advanced fields such as supercomputing, artificial intelligence (AI), bullet trains, aeronautics, nuclear physics researches, engineering, quantum science, iron-based superconductivity, lunar exploration and launched satellites like BeiDou (indigenous GPS navigation and text) and Quantum Communications Satellite (secure encrypted communications)1.

In 2016, China surpassed US by publishing 426,000 scientific studies as against 409,000 of US. In 2010-2014, USA led the world with 15,317 AI patents and China was second with 8410. In 2017, China surpassed USA in terms of AI patent applications, citation of research papers and venture capital investment 1. Similarly, Huawei has more patent applications pending in the USA than those filed by US developers.

China tested its first atomic bomb and hydrogen bomb in 1964 and 1967 respectively and successfully launched its first satellite in 1970. China became the third country to send humans into space in 2003. It now aspires to put a man on Mars by 2030.

The argument that most of the 20th century developments made by China are essentially not indigenous to it is specious to the extent that it discounts the advances made and applications of these technologies in the Chinese context.
This paper briefly discusses certain technological initiatives and their employment by China that have wider global acceptance, applications and connected ramifications.

Brief Status Review

In recent years, China’s S&T systems have constantly improved thereby providing increased support and guidance to economic development and innovation and becoming its primary growth engine. China has maintained the world’s largest pool of R&D personnel for six years which, today, works actively towards expanding its global footprint.

In 2017, the high-tech sector's prime operating revenue was 15.9 trillion yuan. In 2018, total national R&D expenditures reached 1967.79 billion yuan, an increase of 207.18 billion yuan (11.8 %) over the previous year.

China has made great contributions and advances in global S&T and in global innovation to become an influential global player in technological innovation and their applications, along with high-tech manufacturing and industrial transformation.

The trade war and more recently, the Corona virus, have dominated discussions about China. It would be fallacious to assume that China has not further refined the earlier applications. On the contrary, adverse situations impel innovations towards enhanced realization of their potential. A discussion on some of these applications, considered path breaking and worthy of adaptation in local environments, follows.

Selected Technological Initiatives and Impacts

Concurrent with the efforts of developed nations to explore new technologies, China harnessed certain emerging technologies and emerged a leader in their usage. Domain specific examples are:

Space Systems: Some noteworthy developments are - Electromagnetic (EM) Drive, Pulsar Navigation Satellite (launched in Nov 2016); Internet based Software enabled satellites; Anti Satellite weapons based on Lasers and Radio-frequency (RF); Interfering with adversary’s space based assets.

The indigenously developed Beidou removes dependence on US GPS. All Chinese sea going vessels use it irrespective of size. Its inbuilt text capability is a natural derivative for monitoring adversary’s maritime traffic. Now it is offered to some African nations. A SCMP (South China Morning Post) report suggests that American (U 2 Dragon Lady) spy planes use Beidou as their navigational system!

The capability of Quantum satellite in providing secure encryption communications has been augmented by the 800 kg portable ground receiving station in January 2020. Software based satellites (Tianzhi) established China’s lead over the US3. Likewise the Electro Magnetic (EM) Drive technology to propel satellites was considered impossible till China tested an EM drive on Tiangong-2 space station on 10 December 2016.

Artificial Intelligence4: Initially, US supplied American AI research community literature and helped China to acquire AI technology both in terms of investment and research. China, had only 11% share of global AI funding in 2016. This grew to 48% in 2017 as against 38% of the US5. Today, China appears to be on its way to becoming the first global superpower for Artificial Intelligence. 6 The availability of gigantic ‘Big Data’ sets imparts an advantage to China in developing various AI applications over the USA.

On 08 July 2017, China released a national AI Development Plan7. It aims to grow the country's core AI industries to over 150 billion yuan ($22.15 billion) by 2020 and 400 billion yuan ($59.07 billion) by 2025; and to become the world leader in AI and making the industry worth $150 billion by 20308.

The PRC government lays down AI strategy and goals. It works closely with established local digital companies such as Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent allowing them occasionally to collect and exploit data. Startups also receive tax breaks, government contracts and offices in AI clusters - if they wish.

China terms much of its AI push, ‘peaceful’ claiming that its AI potential is to be used to protect military & digital interests, and simultaneously enable the population to live a good life in safety. It has developed many diverse AI applications in Facial Recognition, Speech Recognition, generating Social Credit ratings9, ATM operations, Monitoring attendance in academic institutions, Traffic violations and population surveillance etc.

Economic

A recent comment on the emergence of Tencent and Alibaba which respectively own WeChat and Alipay was “that some 18 months earlier, the nation’s tech giants “were way too small to worry about, and now they’re way too big to do anything about.”10

Alibaba’s MYbank (set up in 2015) uses a risk management system to analyze around 3000 variables. It has lent 2 trillion Yuan ($290 bn) loans to 16 million small companies. Loan seekers apply online through an app. The loans are disbursed instantly under the “3-1-0” system, which means three minutes to apply, one second to approve and zero human involvement. The default rate so far: about 1%.11The operating cost for MyBank, per loan, is about 3 yuan. In contrast, its rivals, operating on traditional methods, incur around 2,000 yuans!

Robotics

China has used (AI) system to synthesize the presenters' voices, lip movements and expressions of news reading robots modeled on lines of human readers of Xinhua.12 China had 87000 industrial robots in 2016. This is to grow to 20% per year through 2020 to compensate for aging demographics. 13

Miscellaneous

The civil AI developments are found in consumer electronics, communication infra-structure, Electronic Vehicles (EV), driverless modes of transport. The globally depleting petroleum reserves results in efforts in Electric Vehicles (EVs) China plans to put 5 million EVs on the road by 2020.14

Some 37 African nations, being signatories to the BRI project, receive multiple technological aid, loans and assistance for Port Development, Agriculture, Hydro, Facial Recognition and Aero technologies. While increasing their economic dependence on China it can also alter the erstwhile geostrategic calculus.15

Few AI applications that hold win-win promise have been emulated e.g. Ecuador implemented the Facial Recognition system in November 2016, bringing about a reduction in crime rate there by 24%.16 Facial recognition has also been approved and introduced by India. Few African nations have procured and installed the traffic and Social Credit rating systems.

A myriad of civil AI applications along with Big Data are used in USA, UK, India, and Israel. Namely - facilitating functioning of various government departments; analyzing electorate behavior and predicting election results; providing public services including health care and prescription drug control; agriculture technology, employment, economic productivity, crime, security, disaster & resource management and in predicting metrological variations. The technologies having truly competitive or military implications, can act as trigger for sanctions, call for review of trade, travel and education exchanges as evidenced by the Sino-US trade war.

China announced launching of the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), with AI capability in August 201617 and displayed a DF-100 missile in October 201918. It is claimed that China's next-generation cruise missiles will integrate high level of AI and be developed on a ‘modular’ design, allowing them to be tailor-made for specific combat situations. The new systems may incorporate ‘in flight’ tasking as well. How much of these capabilities will eventually be operationalized, remains to be seen.

Other Applications

China has effectively created a new digital environment - both a tool of political control and an engine of economic growth. Its population has got used to technology and places trust in it while accepting lower levels about privacy.
China has put its technological advances to multiple interesting uses. In Beijing and Shanghai the passport scanner automatically addresses visitors in their native tongues. Cash has been replaced by digital payment to the extent that store clerks give blank stares to customers trying to use traditional money.

The ‘FlyZoo’ hotel in Hangzhou, takes picture of the face and passport of guests. Facial recognition algorithms then open doors while robots mix cocktails and provide room service. 19 In Shenzhen, drones are employed on e-commerce deliveries in rural China. Downtown traffic is guided by synced stoplights and restrained by police cameras. An advanced facial recognition system is deployed in Xinjiang to monitor the restive Muslim Uighurs.

Space restrictions prevent detailed discussion of these technologies that are near maturity and will soon find global acceptance - Blockchain, Advanced Biomedicine, Cloud computing, Quantum computing, Edge computing, Flexible display, 5 G Communication, Immersive technology, Immunotherapy and Providing solutions for Logistics management.

Are Some Worth Emulating?

Technology today advances at unprecedented scale and levels, posing a generic challenge. Whoever creates, deploys and implements new technologies reaps a slew of advantages. The disbelievers, skeptics, ‘have nots’ may resist for short time but ultimately have to toe the line. Many developing nations today remain dependent on their patrons for infrastructure development, communication systems, space initiatives and defence requirements. Till such time they can develop their own systems, they will keep paying the price(s) determined by the provider(s).

The subsequent discussion considers the advantages offered by the following technologies that stand proven in China’s context.

The linking of facial (personal) digital data can replace many old practices and secure citizens legitimate interests against financial frauds, getting locked out of hotel rooms, misplaced and disputed deliveries, reduce the need to create and store paper documents, etc. Further, facial recognition can serve to identify the presence of criminals and terrorists in an area and before they can carry out their mission. Introducing an identification system similar to the Shanghai passport scanners on global, regional and sub-regional levels in dealing with a heterogeneous, drifting population - carrying multiple identification documents, will facilitate both the government and citizens.

AI facilitates instant e-Translation and pronunciation of foreign words without having to learn anything. This increases primary interaction between different nationals. The nuances, intricacies and legal terms (of contracts) of a foreign language may still not be available ‘on the fly’, but this too can happen soon.

China offers a solution (5G) to the insatiable appetite for high speed internet connectivity. This has been opposed by USA citing its ‘backdoor’ and snooping characteristics with mixed responses from its allies. It may be a matter of time before 5G becomes acceptable.

EVs have caught the fancy of the world, including India.

Analysis and Conclusion

In context of the prevailing technology applications, players like US apprehend that entry of ‘new kids on the block’ may affect their established positions. They can conjure up or highlight certain negative aspects of new technologies to retain and secure their lead. However, the low costs (including offsets, loans or ‘aid’); easy availability of new technology, lesser restrictive terms etc. make such long term denial difficult. The additional fact that cutting off or denying available technology can force the ‘denied party’ to either seek alternate sources or start indigenous development, makes it become counter-productive. These together, can lead to redefining the prevailing dependence, geo economic and geo strategic equations.

World over, modern governance involves collection of large amounts of data. Electronic records of voice, assets, biometrics, bank balances, incomes and spending patterns of individual citizens are already available - some even shared with other governments. Certain agencies occasionally dig into this reserve for specified aims. Examples are the revenue, taxation, crime control and immigration agencies.

Commercially, the e-retailers (e.g. Amazon) analyze online purchases and influence consumer buying behavior through ‘those-who-bought-X-also-bought-Y’ suggestions. In other cases, locations of nearby cafes and commercial establishments appear while transiting certain localities. Therefore, the question is not about, ab initio, collection of data, but of using it intelligently and within confines of law and individual rights.

In our context, the cascading effects of assimilating newer technologies will be : it will bring much needed discipline, attitude and environmental changes that plague the society (corruption and ‘chalta hai’); improve efficiency by goading employees and job seekers alike to upskill in order to remain relevant thereby introducing a national appetite for technology. On the other hand, it can be argued that this will lead to more layoffs and unemployment. If India has to make her mark as a growing power and stay relevant in 21st century, it would have to take a call beyond the present ‘Make in India’ initiative. The increased availability of locally produced better quality goods will result in foreign exchange savings and improve prospects of increasing foreign trade.

The debates over some aspects like surveillance, privacy, free speech, censorship and employment would continue - being two sides of the same coin. Technologies are tools created to serve the master(s). The end positive or negative results depend solely on how these are harnessed.

References
  1. QUESS launched from the cosmodrome on Gobi desert". Spaceflights.news. 17 August 2016.
  2. Tsinghua University report. See https://www.scmp.com/tech/china-tech/article/2155600/chinas-ai-industry-gets-most-funding-lags-us-key-talent-says
  3. https://space.skyrocket.de/doc_sdat/tianzhi-1.htm and https://www.yicaiglobal.com/news/china-world-first-software-defined-satellite-enters-orbit.
    On 17 March 2019, the satellite set its own orbit using data from the global navigation satellite system.
  4. https://www.technologyreview.com/s/603070/a-chinese-internet-giant-enters-the-ai-race/
  5. https://blog.usejournal.com/top-10-chinese-startups-to-watch-in-2018-90690d7d6109
  6. https://www.forbes.com/sites/cognitiveworld/2020/01/14/china-artificial-intelligence-superpower/#178435192f05
  7. https://flia.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/A-New-Generation-of-Artificial-Intelligence-Development-Plan-1.pdf
  8. https://www.forbes.com/sites/ywang/2017/11/06/will-the-future-of-artificial-intelligence-look-chinese/#78d0e44a7fdc
  9. The ‘Social Credit Score’ is a system that collects all kinds of data about citizens and companies, sorts, analyses, evaluates, interprets and implements (human-suggested) actions based on it. A good score brings rewards while a bad score (e.g. jumping a traffic light) assures multiple punishments.
  10. https://www.cfr.org/event/ceo-speaker-series-conversation-al-kelly
  11. https://fortune.com/2019/07/29/jack-ma-mybank-lending/
  12. https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-46136504
  13. https://www.cnbc.com/2018/06/22/chinas-developing-an-army-of-robots-to-reboot-its-economy.html
  14. China has adequate reserves of Lithium which is used in nuclear reactors, vehicle batteries, or rechargeable batteries of laptops, smart phones, tablets, other electronic devices.
  15. http://www.chinaafricarealstory.com/
  16. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy defence/article/2129912/ecuador fighting crime using chinese surveillance
  17. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2016-08/19/content_26530461.htm
  18. https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/chinas-df-100-missile-threat-us-navy-93166
  19. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/10/04/alibaba-china-flyzoo-hotel-uses-facial-recognition-tech-and-robots.html

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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