The Sino-American Technology Race: What it Means to US

DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the inventor of the Internet, has a full portfolio of high-tech ventures from accelerating molecular discoveries for new medicines, coatings, and dyes to Adaptable Navigation Systems so users (particularly the military) can navigate should GPS based systems get jammed  or are not available because of geography.

Those, however, are low impact examples of what’s in the DARPA production lineup. The really big chips are on the replacement material for silicon, the substrate for computer chips. A new material must be discovered to continue the advancement of Moore’s Law, increasing computing power on the same scale seen over the last decades; and, on Quantum Computing. This involves placing data on atoms-  a challenge as atoms are far from stable. Solve the stability issue and the first Quantum Computer will begin decoding any encryption put before it. The national security implications are stark.

 Xi Jing Ping,  President of the PRC,  put in place in 2015, “China 2025”, with the intent of gaining high tech production prowess in electric car production, IT, artificial intelligence, telecommunications, advanced robotics, alternative energy and computing.

Between 2000 and 2016 PRC R&D investment increased tenfold. The resounding spending on technology is evidenced by the  recent Chang’e 4’s landing on the Von Karman crater (PRC’s innovative  contribution to SETI -search for extraterrestrial life-by pulsating x-rays into the far reaches of the galaxies instead of the US’s use of radio frequency), vast genome-sequencing facilities, creating the world’s largest radio telescope, development of underground neutrino and dark-matter detector, and  plans for building the largest particle accelerator.

The foundation of technology supremacy rests on a steady flow of outstanding research. In this area as well, the PRC is forging ahead.  

Front and center of the most elite universities in China is Tsinghua University, which according to a hard and fast metric  of the top 1% most cited math and computing research papers, produced 42 such papers from 2013 to 2016, outstripping the number two institution PRC Harbin Institute of Technology,  which tied Stanford in producing 38 such papers. Rounding out the top four in the world is MIT, which produced 35.

MIT is still number one in most cited STEM research papers, bit it’s widely expected in 5 years that Tsinghua will surpass it. Tsinghua was founded following the Boxer Rebellion, the anti-foreign uprising in 1900 with reparation money given to the US Government by China. From these humiliating origins it now fosters an immense sense of pride among the 1.4 billion Chinese.

The masterminds behind accelerating the dominance of China in STEM plan to use money as the carrot. 30 years ago, a research paper that garnered top 1% references in Nanjing was awarded $25. Today that same paper produced in Tsinghua brings $165,000, 20 times the salary of the average academic. The response from the 211 institutions was resounding. PRC’s share of STEM papers in Scorpus, the world’s biggest catalogue of abstracts and citations of STEM papers, was 4% in 2000. In 2016 it was 19%.   Another tool has been the implementation of the US university tenure system: 6 years of research and then a review of performance based upon published works. Within STEM these two factors influenced Tsinghua’s catapulting from 66th in 2006 rankings to number one today.

The lesson to be learned from this ongoing rivalry is the importance of conducting research at the undergraduate level: the more substantive the better. If one’s interest happens to be within the “China 2025” 10 targeted markets all the better.

No matter who wins the major technology battles, the benefits will accrue across national borders. The US might begin looking to invest in solutions to human needs instead of concentrating on killer drones, bullets and bombs in multiple undeclared wars. Far better to invest in the Sino-American Technology Race.The stakes are high, but that’s usually when the best solutions arise.