Can the Chinese Out-Innovate America?

It appears that the Chinese are not merely trying to catch up to American technology levels. They are seeking to leapfrog us by developing technologies faster than we can.

Two articles recently in the Wall Street Journal report on two specific areas of competition–gene editing and artificial intelligence. In both cases, the Chinese have obtained core technologies through whatever means–buying it or copying it, etc. It seems the genies are out of the bottle. They are taking advantage of their huge wealth at the moment to invest aggressively in developing the technologies and also using their huge population base to roll technologies out on a vast scale. And lastly, they are not as concerned as we are about the ethical issues of gene editing or artificial intelligence. We see this pattern across the board whether it be solar power, all-electric vehicles that are autonomous, semiconductors, etc.

The articles are behind the Journal’s pay wall, so I will briefly summarize them:

On Monday Jan. 22, a team of reporters led by Preetika Rana wrote about how in a hospital in Hangzhou, Dr. Wu Shixiu is using Crispr-Cas9, a genetic editing tool invented in the United States, to treat patients with esophogeal-cancer. He draws blood from the patients and sends it to a lab that modifies disease-fighting cells in a way that improves the patients’ ability to fight cancer. It took him an afternoon to get permission from his hospital’s review board to start the work. Meanwhile, American doctors have not yet been allowed to start human trials because of federal government concerns about the safety of gene editing. “China shouldn’t have been the first one to do it,” Dr. Wu is quoted as saying. “But there are fewer restrictions.” In short, China could use American tools to leapfrog the rest of the world in genetic editing.

A second article the next day on Tuesday Jan. 23, another team led by Sam Schechner described an AI start-up called Yitu Tech from Shanghai was able to win a contest organized by American intelligence agencies to develop algorithmns that could identify surveillance images of people out of a database of millions of photos. Yitu Tech was able to win because it had access to Chinese security databases comprising millions of people that it could use to train and refine its algorithmns. The country is installing tens of millions of video cameras in public places and using face-recognition technology to analyze them. Once again, the Chinese are taking advantage of their vast population base and a dramatically different regulatory regime (not much concern about privacy) to move ahead in developing Western-inspired technologies.

The implications of all this is enormous: U.S. technology companies could be surprised to find they have been rendered obsolete in key areas. And the U.S. military could find the Chinese have developed surprising capabilities. I obviously don’t have all the answers, but it appears the United States needs to think very hard about how to respond–before it’s too late.

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