China challenges the US for global tech leadership


China is seeking to promote research into what it calls "frontier technology", including quantum computing and semiconductors, as it struggles with the United States for supremacy in the latest technological innovations.

In its five-year development plan, the fourteenth of its kind, Beijing stated that "science and technology, self-sufficiency and self-improvement are a strategic pillar for national development." Premier Li Keqiang said on Friday that China will increase spending on research and development by more than 7% annually between 2021 and 2025, in search of "major breakthroughs" in technology.

China has focused on enhancing its national expertise in areas it considers strategically important, such as semiconductors. And now it has defined 7 categories of "frontier technologies" that it will prioritize not only for the next 5 years, but beyond.

1) Artificial intelligence (AI)

China plans to focus on developing specialized chips for AI applications and developing so-called open source algorithms. Open source technology is usually developed by one entity and licensed by other companies.

Machine learning is the development of artificial intelligence programs that are trained on huge amounts of data. The program “learns” as it receives more data. Artificial intelligence has been a key field for Chinese companies and central government in recent years. Big companies like Alibaba and Baidu have invested in the technology.

China and the United States compete for AI dominance. A group of experts chaired by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt said China could soon replace the United States as the "global AI superpower."

2) Quantum computers

This is a completely different computer concept from the ones we use today and promises great results, such as the creation of a new branch of medicine.

Quantum computing is seen as another area of ​​competition between the United States and China.

3) Integrated circuits and semiconductors

Semiconductors are a critical area for China and one in which it has invested heavily in recent years, but the country has struggled to catch up with the levels of the United States, Taiwan and South Korea.

The problem is the complexity of the semiconductor supply chain. TSMC (Taiwan) and Samsung (South Korea) are the two most advanced chip makers in the world, but they rely on tools from the United States and Europe.

Washington has placed SMIC (China's largest chip maker) on the Entity List, the blacklist for exports. The SMIC cannot access American technology and reportedly: The United States has pushed Dutch company ASML not to ship a key tool that could help SMIC reach competitors.

In its five-year plan, China says it will focus on research and development of integrated circuit design tools, key equipment and key materials.

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4) Neuroscience

China plans to examine "brain-inspired computing" and "brain-computer fusion technology". However, such work is already underway in the United States at Elon Musk's Neuralink company. Neuralink is working on implantable "brain-chip" interfaces to connect humans and computers.

5) Genetics and biotechnology

With the outbreak of the Coronavirus last year, the importance of biotechnology has increased considerably. China says it will focus on "innovative vaccines" and "biological safety research".

6) Medicine and health

Chinese research will focus on understanding the progression of cancer, cardiovascular, respiratory and metabolic diseases.

The government also says it will research some "cutting edge" treatment technologies such as regenerative medicine. These are drugs that can regrow or repair damaged cells, tissues and organs.

China says it will also look at key technologies in the prevention and treatment of major communicable diseases.

7) Space, seabed and polar research

Beijing will focus on research into the "origin and evolution of the universe", exploration of Mars and research in the deep and polar seas.

In December, a Chinese spaceship returned to Earth carrying rocks from the moon. It was the first time China has launched a spacecraft from an extraterrestrial body and the first time it has collected lunar samples.

In July, China launched a mission to Mars called Tianwen -1.

5 years to overtake the USA

China intends to excel in enhancing its military, commercial and digital role on the world stage and has the fundamentals to do so.

To achieve these results in a relatively short time, the Chinese government will focus on academic research, incubators and national laboratories.

Considering the non-idyllic relations with the United States (see the ban of Huawei and Xiaomi) it was foreseeable to expect such a reaction.

Author: Alessandro Ave

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