An ambitious goal made in China
Three years have passed since then and it’s time to make a first assessment. At what point is Chinese digital revolution? The leading player in China’s great plan can only be artificial intelligence. If the deadlines set by the government are met, the development of AI in China will stand on a par with that of the US by 2020 whereas by 2025, technology implemented by Chinese researchers will have to reach a level of excellence. The last deadline however, is 2030, a year which will have to see China as the world leader in the field of AI. Unlike those announcements made by Western governments or entrepreneurs with a little too much fondness for bombast, (e.g. Elon Musk) when similar signals come from Beijing, the effects are felt straight away. “That kind of disclosures, if made by the Chinese government would have huge implications for the country and its economy,” says Andrew Ng, the American computer scientist who has made the biggest contribution to the development of deep learning. “It’s quite a strong message for everyone, which shows something big could be happening”.
Data is what AI lives on
And something big is indeed happening, right under the noses of their incredulous American rivals, who look on powerless as China races to supremacy in the crucial field of AI. As Kai-Fu Lee emphasises in his seminal work AI Superpowers, the era of big discoveries in the field of deep learning – that is, the technology used to develop cutting-edge AI – could already be over. With these devices, we’re now at the stage of small innovations and commercial development, and China is second to none in this area. The People’s Republic may not be home to computer geniuses like Yann LeCun or Geoff Hinton – the two godfathers of deep learning, who now work for Facebook and Google, respectively – but it can still draw from a large pool of scientists and engineers. Above all, China has a huge amount of data that it can use to train learning systems. Data is what AI lives on. Having access to the most data means being able to train algorithms to carry out their tasks with increasing accuracy. And in China, collecting massive amounts of data is child’s play. After all, this is a country where most activity takes place online, through smartphones and super platforms like WeChat – used to make payments and perform official administration, among many other things – and privacy laws are practically non-existent. So, the raw material’s there and that’s allowed a sudden explosion in the sector. You can already see the effects. Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, China’s three technology giants have invested in more than a hundred companies in the deep learning sector, while SenseTime, a Chinese company specialising in image recognition, one of the most important uses for AI, has become the world’s highest valued start-up, at three billion dollars. And it’s not the only one. Megvii, another image recognition company, made around 460 million dollars in 2017 alone, while iCarbonX, which uses AI in the field of biotechnology, made 150 million dollars. Others, like DeePhi, work to develop the hardware needed for AI systems, a field China has not excelled in so far, or, like Westwell, try to replicate the workings of the human brain. The result? China is now about to overtake the USA. This view is supported by the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, a prestigious research centre set up by Paul Allen, the late co-founder of Microsoft. The Institute says that, of the most-cited 50% of academic papers on the subject, papers from China will exceed American ones this year.
The triumph of 5G
The deadlines the government has come up with are therefore being met, and even ahead of schedule. And although China may still be catching up in the field of AI, there’s one sector it’s top in, and that’s 5G. On 21 February 2018, the world first phone call using the new generation of mobile communication took place in Spain, made possible by Vodafone and Huawei. Huawei has been the undisputed leader in 5G for some time. Based in Shenzhen, it is the archetype of Chinese success, due to the speed with which it became one of the world’s biggest companies and because it symbolises the country’s technological advance of. Huawei already holds 29% of the market in telecommunications infrastructure, followed by the European companies Nokia (17%) and Ericsson (13%). In fourth place is ZTE (8%), another company based in Shenzhen. In this sector, too, projections give an idea of Chinese ambitions. Thanks to the work carried out by its companies, the country could have full 5G coverage by 2023, well ahead of the other world powers. By 2025, 40% of the world’s 5G users will be living in China. That’s 500 million out of a global total of 1.2 billion. Generally, experts agree that the People’s Republic has a strong lead when it comes to 5G. This can be seen from the extensive experiments already under way in metropolises like Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, and the fact that, despite geopolitical tensions, countries looking to quickly get hold of a 5G infrastructure are inevitably turning to China. This all has enormous implications, given that 5G promises to be the spark that will set off precision farming, Industry 4.0, remote healthcare, mobile virtual reality, more widespread augmented reality, self-driving cars and much more besides.The combination of 5G and artificial intelligence could allow nations that until a few years ago could only imitate foreign designs, to make the giant technological leap.
From supercomputers to quantum technology
The two crucial innovations we’ve seen so far are not the only sectors in which China is showing what it can do. Another is supercomputers. These highly powerful tools occupy whole floors in laboratories. They are used in the most strategic sectors in science, industrial research and security, to analyse billions of DNA sequences, improve weather forecasts and simulate atomic bomb explosions, to give just a few examples. China’s progress in this sector is phenomenal. In 2001, it didn’t have a single supercomputer. Today, 206 of the world’s 500 most powerful are to be found in the People’s Republic. This progress has been at the expense of the United States, which has gone from having 145 in the top 500 in 2017, to 124 today. First and second place in the ranking have recently been snatched back by the Americans, thanks to IBM’s supercomputers Summit and Sierra. However, the TaihuLight and Tianhe-2A provide China with third and fourth place. That’s not all. China also seems to be ahead in the race to build exascale systems, computers that can reach speeds of one exaflop (one billion billion calculations per second). It has presented its first two prototypes and will have finished developing them in 2021.As if that wasn’t enough, Beijing is in a good position in another crucial sector, quantum technology, which, unlike traditional computer systems, uses qubits. These units of information exist in multiple states at the same time, by contrast with regular bits, which alternate in form between 0 and 1.
The world’s first quantum communications satellite
This allows them, among other things, to store more information using less energy. As a consequence, they can perform extremely complicated calculations in fields like chemistry and encryption. And it’s in encryption that China is making giant leaps forward thanks to quantum technology. In August 2016, it launched Micius, the world’s first quantum communications satellite, from the Gobi Desert. This device will make it completely impossible to intercept military communication, using quantum physics. Even trying to do so will modify the transmission irreversibly, making it incomprehensible. Micius has already been used for an encrypted video call between Chinese and Austrian scientists in 2017. It is the result of enormous investments in the sector from Beijing, which has forked out ten billion dollars for building the National Laboratory for Quantum Information Science in Hefei, for example. There’s still a long way to go before the first real quantum computer can be built. For the time being, all we have is highly unstable prototypes. Even the projections aren’t much help on this front. We could be waiting anywhere between five and thirty years. Overall, though, the situation is clear. After years of underestimating this technological progress, the United States, and to a lesser extent Europe, are finding themselves almost helpless in the face of a new technological superpower.
The author: Andrea Signorelli
Born in Milan in 1982, he writes about the interaction between new technologies, politics and society. He collaborates with La Stampa, Wired, Esquire, Il Tascabile and others. In 2017 he published “Rivoluzione Artificiale: l’uomo nell’epoca delle macchine intelligenti” for Informant Edizioni.