Dec 21, 2018

The West’s China blind spot

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The West has a blind spot when it comes to China’s technological advances.

What's happening: Again and again, the West has shown that it misunderstands China's true competence in the technologies of the future — artificial intelligence, quantum science, robotics, and more. Alternatively under- and over-estimating China's progress, the U.S. and Europe are left simply unmoored in terms of tracking their primary geopolitical competition.

What it looks like: Whiplash.

  • In an utterly unexpected announcement last month, a Chinese scientist said he had produced a genetically edited embryo.
  • In recent years, there has been a headline-grabbing explosion of AI papers from Chinese researchers, followed by analyses suggesting that Chinese research lags significantly behind American and European work when accounting for impact.
  • Over the last year, major advances have been announced by Chinese companies that most in the West have never heard of — like MiningLamp, a big data company that’s attracted big-name investors.

Several factors contribute to the trans-Pacific information gap:

  • Unlike military hardware that can be publicly demonstrated, virtual technology like AI and quantum computing is difficult to scrutinize, especially because they are at their core difficult to understand.
  • The Chinese government deliberately sows confusion in official announcements and state-controlled media. The aim is sometimes to send rivals scrambling toward a dead end, says Elsa Kania, an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
  • A narrow focus on major cities — Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen — that leaves out major universities and data-annotation outfits that contribute to China’s AI rise, says Jeffrey Ding, a researcher at Oxford's Future of Humanity Institute.

Combined, these factors and others have often left the West in the dark. MiningLamp, for example, is barely mentioned in English literature but is well known in China, says Joy Ma, a researcher at UChicago's Paulson Institute. As a result, U.S. and European companies and officials don't know how to respond appropriately.

  • Now, the West has swung from discounting Chinese innovation to panicking, depicting an unstoppable tech juggernaut. Against this framing, the U.S. is considering ways to preserve the American tech advantage, like imposing export controls. But sanctions can be overkill, too.
  • The reality, says Kania, is somewhere in the middle.

Axios science editor Andrew Freedman writes: Policy decisions made now will determine whether the U.S. successfully competes with China for the lead in scientific and engineering research, or squanders it through a mix of underfunding and poorly crafted legislation.

  • It's conceivable that China, not the U.S., will be the next country to land a human on the Moon, while also rivaling the U.S. and the E.U. in weather prediction in as little as a decade from now — a field with many military applications.

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