Red moon ris­ing: China’s march as a sci­ence su­per­power

Should the rest of the world worry? We are about to find out if tech­no­log­i­cal great­ness re­quires free­dom of thought

i Newspaper - - NEWS -

Ahundred years ago, a wave of stu­dent protests broke over China’s great cities. Des­per­ate to re­verse a cen­tury of de­cline, the lead­ers of the 4 May Move­ment wanted to jet­ti­son Con­fu­cian­ism and im­port the dy­namism of the West. The cre­ation of a mod­ern China would come about, they ar­gued, by re­cruit­ing “Mr Sci­ence” and “Mr Democ­racy”.

To­day, the coun­try that the 4 May stu­dents helped to shape is more than ever con­sumed by the pur­suit of na­tional great­ness. China’s land­ing of a space­craft on the far side of the Moon on 3 Jan­uary, a first for any coun­try, was a mark of its soar­ing am­bi­tion. But to­day’s lead­ers re­ject the idea that Mr Sci­ence be­longs in the com­pany of Mr Democ­racy. On the con­trary, Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping is count­ing on be­ing able to har­ness lead­ing-edge re­search even as the Com­mu­nist Party tight­ens its stran­gle­hold on pol­i­tics. Amid the grow­ing ri­valry be­tween China and Amer­ica, many in the West fear that he will suc­ceed.

There is no doubt­ing Mr Xi’s de­ter­mi­na­tion. Mod­ern sci­ence de­pends on money, in­sti­tu­tions and oo­dles of brain­power. Partly be­cause its gov­ern­ment can mar­shal all three, China is hurtling up the rank­ings of sci­en­tific achieve­ment. It has spent many bil­lions of dol­lars on ma­chines to de­tect dark mat­ter and neu­tri­nos, and on in­sti­tutes ga­lore that delve into ev­ery­thing from ge­nomics and quan­tum com­mu­ni­ca­tions to re­new­able en­ergy and ad­vanced ma­te­ri­als.

An anal­y­sis of 17.2 mil­lion pa­pers in 2013-18, by Nikkei, a Ja­pa­nese pub­lisher, and El­se­vier, a sci­en­tific pub­lisher, found that more came from China than from any other coun­try in 23 of the 30 busiest fields, such as sodium-ion bat­ter­ies and neu­ron-ac­ti­va­tion anal­y­sis. The qual­ity of Amer­i­can re­search has re­mained higher, but China has been catch­ing up, ac­count­ing for 11 per cent of the most in­flu­en­tial pa­pers in 2014-16.

Such is the pres­sure on Chi­nese sci­en­tists to make break­throughs that some put ends be­fore means. Last year, He Jiankui, an aca­demic from Shen­zhen, edited the genomes of em­bryos with­out proper re­gard for their post-par­tum wel­fare – or that of any chil­dren they might go on to have.

Chi­nese ar­ti­fi­cial-in­tel­li­gence (AI) re­searchers are thought to train their al­go­rithms on data har­vested from Chi­nese cit­i­zens, with lit­tle over­sight. In 2007, China tested a space-weapon on one of its weather satel­lites, lit­ter­ing or­bits with lethal space

The loom­ing prospect of a rule-break­ing, dom­i­nant, hi-tech China alarms the West

de­bris. In­tel­lec­tual-prop­erty theft is ram­pant.

The loom­ing prospect of a dom­i­nant, rule-break­ing, hi-tech China alarms Western politi­cians, and not just be­cause of the new weaponry it will de­velop. Au­thor­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ments have a his­tory of us­ing sci­ence to op­press their own peo­ple. China al­ready de­ploys AI tech­niques like fa­cial recog­ni­tion to mon­i­tor its pop­u­la­tion in real time. The out­side world might find a China dab­bling in ge­netic en­hance­ment, au­tonomous AIs or geo­engi­neer­ing ex­tremely fright­en­ing.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.