The tech arms race shaping your future

Ban: Trump (left) has added Huawei to a blacklist. Xi Jinping (right) is fighting back.

Google has restricted Huawei’s use of Android this morning — a huge ramping up of the tech arms race between China and America. The eventual winner could dominate our lives for decades.

“We must make persistent efforts, [and] press ahead with indomitable will,” declared Xi Jinping on becoming president of China. He had a grand vision: economic prosperity, national glory and scientific advances combining to install China as the world’s dominant superpower. He called it the “China Dream”.

In pursuing this dream, China has one great rival: the United States. For now, America has the upper hand. Its economy is significantly bigger — worth $20.5 trillion compared to China’s $13.4 trillion. It also boasts key military advantages.

But advances in one key area threaten to decisively upset this balance: technology.

Big data, robotics, artificial intelligence: digital tech will shape society for decades to come. As Vladimir Putin once mused, “Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”

The most recent flashpoint in this technology arms race has come in America’s showdown with Chinese electronics giant Huawei.

The second-largest seller of smartphones in the world, Huawei is one of several companies trying to dominate the roll-out of new 5G networks.

Providing near-instant internet speeds — which, as many hope, could fuel the rise of machine learning, quantum computers, smart cities and self-driving cars — 5G is set to have a revolutionary impact.

“In an age when the most powerful weapons, short of nuclear arms, are cyber-controlled, whichever country dominates 5G will gain an economic, intelligence and military edge for much of this century,” claims The New York Times.

Therefore, as far as the American government is concerned, Huawei must not dominate.

It has pressured several European allies to bar Huawei’s networks and accused the company of building “back doors” into their products, allowing the Chinese government to spy on American citizens.

Some refer to China’s controversial use of technology at home. “China’s surveillance state should scare everyone,” declares The Atlantic — which points to the use of facial recognition and “social credit” scores to keep tabs on citizens.

How much this technology arms race impacts citizens in America, Europe and beyond: only time will tell.

Sleeping Dragon

One big question this story begs: can Chinese technology be trusted? Within its borders, a one-party system rules — censoring and monitoring its population in ways supposedly unthinkable in Western nations. Then again, how unthinkable is this?

And what of our broader relationship with technology? Artificial intelligence, quantum computers, self-driving cars: they all promise huge advances in living standards. But what are the risks? By wedding ourselves so closely to machines, are we losing something more valuable?

You Decide

  1. How worried should we be about technology?
  2. Will China become more powerful than America?

Activities

  1. In one minute, write down all of the words that you associate with China. Share your ideas with the class. What impression do all these words give of the country? Do you think these impressions are correct?
  2. Follow the final link in Become An Expert. Study the graph titled: “2,000 years of economic history in one chart”. What do you learn from it? Is there anything that the graph does not tell you? How will it look in another 1,000 years?

Some People Say...

“My whole life is about winning. I don’t lose often. I almost never lose.”

President Donald Trump

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Huawei will no longer get Google’s security updates and technical support, and any new devices will no longer have apps such as YouTube and Maps. Existing Huawei smartphone users will be able to update apps and push through security fixes, as well as update Google Play services. But if Google releases a new version of Android, Huawei won’t be able to offer the update on its phones. Huawei can still use the version of the Android operating system available through an open-source licence.
What do we not know?
How Huawei will respond. In the short term, this could be very damaging for Huawei in the West. In the longer term, though, this might give smartphone vendors, in general, a reason to seriously consider the need for a viable alternative to Google’s operating system. Huawei is concerned and appears to have prepared for the eventuality of being cut off from American know-how. Its smartphones are already powered by its own proprietary processors and, earlier this, year it said: “We have prepared our own operating systems — that’s our plan B.”

Word Watch

Xi Jinping
President of China since 2012. As a teenager, he lived in a cave before rising through the ranks of the Communist Party.
$20.5 trillion
GDP figures, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Advantages
For example, the United States has more nuclear warheads and military aircraft — although China has more soldiers.
Second-largest
Samsung sells the most smartphones. Huawei recently overtook Apple to move into second place.
Quantum computers
A computer which uses quantum mechanics to operate. They are still broadly in their development phase, but they have the potential to be countless times quicker and smarter than current computers.
Smart cities
Computerised cities which respond to data in real time.
Social credit
System in which citizens are given a score based on their everyday behaviour. Those with low scores are prevented from doing certain things, such as buying train tickets. See The Atlantic link for more.