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China aims for hi tech primacy

In an otherwise nondescript conference room, Wu Jianping stands before a giant wall of frosted glass. He toggles a switch and the glass becomes transparent, looking down on an imposing network operations center full of large computer displays.

world Updated: Dec 11, 2011 01:45 IST
David Barboza & John Markoff /NYT
David Barboza & John Markoff /NYT

In an otherwise nondescript conference room, Wu Jianping stands before a giant wall of frosted glass. He toggles a switch and the glass becomes transparent, looking down on an imposing network operations center full of large computer displays.

They show maps of China and the world, pinpointing China’s IPv6 links, the next generation of the Internet. China already has almost twice the number of Internet users as in the United States, and Dr Wu, a computer scientist and director of the Chinese Educational and Research Network, points out that his nation is moving more quickly than any other in the world to deploy the new protocol.

IPv6 - Internet Protocol version 6 - offers advanced security and privacy options, but more important, many more IP addresses, whose supply on the present Internet (IPv4) is almost exhausted.

“China must move to IPv6,” Dr. Wu said. “In the US, some people don’t believe it’s urgent, but we believe it’s urgent.” If the future of the Internet is already in China, is the future of computing there as well?

Many experts in the United States say it could very well be. Because of the ready availability of low-cost labour, China has already become the world’s dominant maker of computers and consumer electronics products. Now, these experts say, its booming economy and growing technological infrastructure may thrust it to the forefront of the next generation of computing.

For China, the quest to develop advanced computing centers is not simply a matter of national pride. It is an attempt to lay the groundwork for innovative Chinese companies and to reshape the technological landscape by doing something more than assembling the world’s desktop PCs. The view is not universal. Still, other experts say it would be a mistake to underestimate China’s capacity for rapid progress.

A New Kind of Challenge
Going back six decades — to Eniac, considered to be the first electronic computer — the US has set both the pace and the path of modern computing and communication. And for more than a generation, the hub of innovation has been Silicon Valley. Probably the most serious challenge to the Valley’s dominance came in the late 1980s from Japan until its economy foundered.

Today, China poses a very different kind of challenge. While Japan’s economy has long been driven by exports, China will soon have the world’s largest domestic market for both Internet commerce and computing.

The world took notice of Chinese technological prowess in late 2010, when a Chinese supercomputer, the Tianhe-1A, briefly became the world’s fastest. Though it was made from American processors and was soon surpassed by a Japanese machine, it was still indisputable evidence that the Chinese had achieved world-class computing designs.

Then, this October, another Chinese supercomputer, the Sunway Bluelight MPP, broke the petaflop barrier — a quadrillion calculations per second — putting it among the world’s 20 fastest computers.

This machine proved even more surprising in the West. Not only was it based on a Chinese-made microprocessor, but it also achieved a significant advance in low-power operation. That might indicate the Chinese now have a significant lead in “performance per watt” — a measure of energy-efficient computing that will prove crucial to reaching the next generation of so-called exascale supercomputers, which are computers that will be a thousand times faster than the world’s fastest today, and which are scheduled to arrive by the end of this decade.

Obstacles to Dominance
Last year, in an interview that would have been seen as extraordinary if the remarks had been made by a US president, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao committed China to creating an “Internet of things.”

But China’s efforts at dominance are hardly without obstacles. The country has fallen far short on a decade-long commitment to build the world’s leading semiconductor industry, and it still imports a vast majority of microchips for the products it assembles. Its best chip factories are two to three generations behind world leaders like Intel, in the US, and TSMC, in Taiwan.

China’s great weakness may prove to be too much government control. Chinese innovation may also be limited by the relative lack of intellectual property protection, discouraging entrepreneurs from breaking new ground. What scares competitors is that China has begun producing waves of amazing hardware engineers and software programmers, winning international competitions and beginning to dominate the best engineering programs in the US.

Much has been made of computer science “returnees,” most notably Andrew Chi-Chih Yao, who left Princeton to create an institute at Tsinghua University in Beijing that has already made breakthroughs in game theory and computer security. And there is little question that the structure of Chinese industry is becoming more innovation-oriented.

Moreover, China is now the world’s second-largest venture capital market, growing to $7.6 billion from just $2.2 billion in 2005, while the American venture capital market has remained largely stagnant, according to Rebecca A Fannin, author of the new book Startup Asia.

The similarities to Silicon Valley can be eerie. “All the symptoms of a bubble are here,” said Anne Stevenson-Yang, an analyst in Beijing. “It’s an unsettling instability.”

At the same time, there is a consensus that China’s entrepreneurs have a workaholic culture that is unmatched anywhere in the world.

But not every China specialist buys such comparisons.

“When we look at China through the lens of American decline, we see the Chinese ascendancy, we see the modern skylines and the fastest computers and the new airports, and we see an invincible force building,” said Orville Schell, director of the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society. “Through Chinese eyes it looks tremendously uncertain and provisional. They are not filled with self-confidence.”


First Published: Dec 11, 2011 00:43 IST