Techbeat: Chinese technology developments

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Thursday, December 13th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. China’s pursuit of new scientific frontiers is coming fast and furious.

Here are a few examples: A Chinese research scientist claimed he used a gene-editing tool on human embryos—with the aim of making them HIV-resistant. The twin girls were born in November. And if this researcher is telling the truth, these would be the first genetically tailored humans.

EICHER: Last month the Beijing Institute of Technology had this announcement: it wants to recruit “patriotic” teenagers to train in military-weapons design using artificial intelligence.

And this: The Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua reported that it’s begun using computer-generated news anchors.

They say they look and sound just like the real thing.

I dunno.

AUDIO: I’m AI News anchor in Beijing is Penom is participating in the ongoing China international import/export… 

Well, look at the bright side. The writers don’t have to worry about producing shorter sentences.

REICHARD: Yeah, cuz they don’t need to breathe or anything mundane like that!

But are the Chinese creating a sort-of “wild west” technological culture that says, “shoot first, ask questions later?”

WORLD Radio technology reporter Michael Cochrane has been following this. Here’s here to talk about it.

Michael, what’s up with Chinese tech? That gene editing experiment seems like it was done just to claim credit for being first.

MICHAEL COCHRANE, REPORTER: I would agree with that, Mary. In fact, the scientist who led the team, He Jiankui said in an ethics statement submitted last year that—quote—“In this ever more competitive global pursuit of applications for gene editing, we hope to be a stand-out.” And he predicted this achievement would surpass the invention of in vitro fertilization.

REICHARD: What about artificial intelligence? That Chinese university recruiting young people to be AI weapons designers sounds like the plot of  a sci-fi novel, like Ender’s Game!

COCHRANE: It sure does! The South China Morning Post quoted a professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology as saying that these kids must not only be bright, they are quote—”looking for other qualities such as creative thinking, willingness to fight, a persistence when facing challenges. A passion for developing new weapons is a must and they must also be patriots.”

REICHARD: So it sounds like this effort is part of a larger national strategy?

COCHRANE: Yes, it does. Technology—particularly AI—is bound up in China’s national security: both militarily and economically. In October of last year, at his country’s 19th Party Congress, President Xi Jinping laid out a plan to develop China into a “country of innovators” with the goal of becoming the world leader in AI by 2030. The plan proposes to use AI technologies across three broad areas: economic development, national security, and enhancing social construction.

REICHARD: How does the recent friction between China and the U.S. over trade play into all of this?

COCHRANE: Well, China has been accused of demanding the transfer of technology from countries such as the United States in return for access to their markets. The resulting trade tension seems to be pushing China toward becoming more self-reliant. This so-called “techno-nationalist” approach makes China a lucrative destination for international AI talent. And better career prospects are enticing Chinese international students to return home after their overseas education. But this strategy could backfire. It’s possible it could stifle international academic, business, and research partnerships, and those are often key to major technology advancements.

REICHARD: Okay, so the nation’s leaders have certainly bought into this idea of technological leadership in China. But is this also reflected more broadly in the culture?

COCHRANE: I think it is. In fact, a theme that seemed to emerge as I was reporting this story can be summed up by a quote from one of those students recruited to design AI weapons. She said, “We are walking a new path, doing things that nobody has done before.”

Just last month China announced it’s planning to build a deep-sea base in the South China Sea for both military and scientific use. It won’t have any humans—just artificial intelligence robots. At the dedication of the project, president Xi urged the scientists to dare to do something that has never been done before.

REICHARD: Over the last 30 years the Chinese communist government has permitted huge shifts toward the development of a market economy in China. Has this radical change in such a short time had anything to do with what we’re seeing in all these Chinese technology innovations?

COCHRANE: It certainly has. George Yip is a professor of marketing and strategy at Imperial College London’s business school. And I think he really nailed it when he spoke last month at a technology conference in Guangzhou, China. Here’s what he said:

“China, being in a catch-up phase, having a large population, has had to accept more risk. Europe, being wealthy, and very low growth, cannot take risks anymore. And the USA is heading a bit in that direction as well. So that’s the advantage of China relative… if we sum it up, the biggest advantage China now has in addition to the size of the population and everything else, is its willingness and ability to take risk… In a sense the cultural revolution shook everything up so much that it prepared people to take more risks. We’ve had such a terrible time we are willing to do anything now.”

So China’s willingness to take big technological, military and economic risks seems to be a major factor driving what we see emerging from that country.

REICHARD: Very interesting. Michael Cochrane is WORLD’s science and technology correspondent. Thanks Michael!

COCHRANE:  You’re welcome, Mary.

(Photo/Osrin, Flickr)

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