By The Nation
China has long been undergoing a technological revolution, with the latest reports describing a prototype new-generation supercomputer that can execute one quintillion calculations per second. It’s another important step in the country’s relentless push to be at the forefront of pioneers exploring a brave new world. When future historians examine the origins of breakthroughs like cloning – and even teleportation – China will certainly be among their primary focuses.
Chinese technological breakthroughs, coming thick and fast in recent years, have opened some controversial doors. While the rest of the world can readily admire its progress in utilising the globe’s huge reserves of a frozen fuel known as “combustible ice” – a development that points to a further revolution in energy generation – there is understandable concern about its advances in the science of cloning. This is where there are ethical boundaries that have to be carefully assessed before they’re crossed.
Chinese scientists last year took a giant step towards making one of the great themes of science fiction a reality. They were able to transmit a tiny object into orbit around the earth not through rocketry but a crude form of teleportation. Though no one was claiming we’d all soon be magically “beaming” up or around the globe, it was a highly significant development all the same. It could, for example, take us to an unimaginably fast “quantum internet”, leaving the existing world wide web seeming snail-like in pace in comparison.
When super-fast supercomputers are linked together on a super-fast Internet, the already world-changing impacts of the current web will in retrospect feel minuscule. China’s new-generation supercomputers can vastly improve weather forecasts and the analyses of water currents and financial data. They will be a boon in the manufacture of high-end equipment and the simulations of vehicle collisions for added safety.
China’s successes can be expected to fuel competition – the United States, Japan and India are racing to develop their own supercomputers. We can hope the competition will be constructive, but history, alas, suggests we should not be overly optimistic. Far too many great scientific discoveries have ended being manipulated to dire ends. Pharmaceutical advancements get mired in patent disputes instead of benefiting people in need. Improvements in technology to predict the weather might be being used to exploit nature, we’re told. Progress in the preservation of food helps feed armies instead of populations stricken with famine.
The military, to be sure, always has the best computer systems.
In striving to lead the world in technology, China is gradually shedding its reputation as a copycat society, accusing of stealing other nations’ intellectual property. The results so far have been noble – and shared with underprivileged people who might other lack access to advanced instruments and services. Beijing should stay on this course and avoid ethical landmines in the road ahead.
Less worrisome than military exploitation are the greedy commercial interests that lurk wherever scientific discoveries are being made. The notion of a speedier Internet must have many corporate mouths drooling. China will have to shed its authoritarian mindset and resist the temptation to dominate other countries, instead sharing its breakthroughs and fostering the science that serves all of mankind.