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Protectionist China’s quantum leap

LiveMint logoLiveMint 07-08-2017 Siddharth Pai

Some months ago, I wrote in this column that China appears to have learnt its lesson from failing to become an information technology services superpower like India and is now focused on fundamental scientific research in emerging areas of technology instead. There is now another technology race on, and it is China, with its well thought out mix of protectionism and fundamental research, that appears to have the early lead over the European Union and the US.

President Obama’s White House had, in its last few months in power, recognized that the Chinese had taken a huge lead in certain areas of Artificial Intelligence (AI) research. Patent filings from China for AI, Quantum Computing, Cryptography and sensors have suddenly increased in number over the past few years, and it would seem as if the country could soon become a serious contender for the No. 1 slot in the next generation of pervasive technologies.

A recent article in The Economist discusses this phenomenon in some detail, and goes on to recount an analysis of why the phenomenon exists. If data is the “new oil”, it calls China the Saudi Arabia of data since it has the largest number of internet users in the world; and, given the fact that the Chinese people aren’t too fussed about privacy, almost all their internet activity is available for use by the country’s AI firms and its government. What the article doesn’t point out is that it helps, of course, that China’s policy toward internet use has been protectionist and has long favoured its home-grown firms.

By some reports, Amazon’s market share of the e-commerce market in China, which has a total market almost as large as that of the US, is less than 1%. The crown for the e-commerce market in China goes to Tmall.com, which has over 55% of the market share.

In a similar vein, Didi Chuxing has ousted Uber as the premier ride hailing service in China, and even bought out the rump of Uber’s Chinese operation as that company exited China. WeChat is the ubiquitous messaging service in China, and is a platform for everything from e-commerce to digital cash transactions.

All this data exhaust, which has been effectively captured by China’s protectionist stance toward data and the internet is now being harnessed to turbocharge the country’s acceleration into AI in fields such as natural language processing, the next AI frontier. The article provides an important clue as to why this is the case: since typing Chinese characters is more difficult than typing Western ones, Chinese people also tend to use voice-recognition services more often than in the West, so firms have more voice inputs with which to improve speech recognition and natural language processing offerings.

China has recently asked its telecom firms to restrict the use of virtual private networks (or VPNs), thereby effectively disallowing any user in China to bypass the country’s telecom networks by anonymously tunneling out into a network based outside the country.

This has led to Apple complying with this order by removing VPNs from its App Store, and the already weak Amazon and its local partner have also announced that they can no longer support VPN use.

Having now curtailed the ability for individuals and firms to have a secure network away from prying eyes, it should probably come as no surprise that the Chinese are also making great headway in the internet technologies for the future. They are now focused on “quantum communications”, and have almost completed building a 2,000-km network linking Shanghai to Beijing which is supposedly impervious to hackers.

The country is also working with satellites to transport quantum signals between earth-based stations, in an attempt to create a new global internet network.

Each handoff of data in these networks uses cryptographic keys based on quantum technology, which makes these handoffs impervious to cyber attack. The network, known as a quantum key distribution (QKD) network, is more secure than today’s electronic communication equivalents.

Unlike present telephone or internet cables, which can be tapped without the knowledge of either the sender or the recipient, a QKD network alerts both users to any tampering with the system as soon as it occurs. This is because tampering immediately alters the information being relayed, with a recognizable disturbance showing up instantly. Once fully implemented, it will make Chinese communications free from the prying eyes of other nation states. The web site phys.org calls this a major achievement in the field of quantum technology; by launching the network, China will become the first country to implement quantum technology for a real life, commercial end.

I had dwelled in an earlier column about quantum computing, which is different from the traditional electronic byte-based computing around 1s and 0s that form the backbone of all of today’s computing capability. It uses qubits instead of transistor bytes, and unlike a byte which has to alternately switch on or off to hold a value of 1 or 0, quantum computers can hold all possible combinations of 1 and 0 within one qubit. The research here is slow and the building of computers that can support quantum computing will take some time, but Google and International Business Machines Corp. are already early customers of a 512-qubit machine manufactured by D-Wave Systems Inc. Quantum networks, quantum cryptography, quantum sensors, and quantum simulators also all fall in this realm.

The possibilities of a combination of a quantum network with quantum computers using quantum sensors and so on is beyond the scope of even my usually febrile imagination. Futurists would be a lot better at dreaming up a variety of uses for these new technologies. One thing is for certain: the byte based AI we already fear today will explode in capability, and the Chinese will control a large swathe of it.

Siddharth Pai is a world-renowned technology consultant who has personally led over $20 billion in complex, first-of-a-kind outsourcing transactions.

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