The tech arms race shaping your future

Roar: “China is a great nation; it has been through hardship but remains indomitable.” Xi Jinping.

Criminal charges against electronics firm Huawei are the latest twist in a new tech “arms race” being waged by 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 the graph 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?
Australia has already excluded Huawei from operating a 5G network, while Germany is considering following suit. Last month, Huawei sacked an employee arrested in Poland on suspicion of spying. However, the company’s founder, Ren Zhengfei, has denied that Chinese authorities ever asked his company to help spy on its clients.
What do we not know?
British defence secretary Gavin Williamson has expressed “very deep concerns” about Huawei’s involvement in the country’s 5G network, saying that “it’s something we'd have to look at very closely.” However, we do not know if Britain will follow the example set by Australia in banning the company.

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.