Digital Dominance

Science, technology and China

Next Voices

In 2010, the Chinese Academy of Sciences published Science & Technology in China: A Roadmap to 2050. This influential document, which sets out how China’s scientific and technological development will progress, has three tenets, each of which Australia should consider in our relationship with China.

The report suggests that the world is about to undergo a new science and technology revolution, and that humanity must undergo that revolution in order to continue to exist, and to exist sustainably, on a planet. The nation at the centre of each science and technology revolution since the eighteenth century, it argues, went on to be a great, if not the pre-eminent, power of their era.

Such statements are not surprising for a report like this. Scientists are adept at writing funding applications, and how better to write an application for forty-year funding than to align it with your nation’s strategic priorities. Indeed, research roadmapping is a well-worn technique. In the United States, roadmapping of developments in semiconductors (used in silicon chips for computers and personal gadgets) can be traced as far back as initial scanning exercises in the 1960s; by the 1980s there were formal fifteen-year industrial roadmaps. The conference paper that describes this process was presented in Beijing back in 1995.

But the risk today, to which this report alludes, is of technological decoupling – of China moving away from a model of global collaboration to “go it alone”, and of countries such as Australia disengaging from China due to domestic suspicion over the nation’s motives. This is a dangerous path indeed.

Science and technology futures are not unknowable. If you get one hundred experts in a room, it’s not that difficult to nail down the likely developments in their disciplines across the next decade. If only through recording the convergence of their thinking, you’ll know what they imagine to be possible and the reality they are seeking to bring about.

Therefore, understanding how China sees future science and technology developments can help Australia to anticipate what tomorrow might look like.

There are two aspects in the unfolding science and technology revolution that increasingly overlap and are worth looking at in more detail. They are platform capabilities that are flipping the world. Welcome to the era of artificial intelligence and engineering biology, and thus bio-informational convergence – a world in which China’s science and technology future is increasingly intertwined with Australia’s.

The murky boundaries of artificial intelligence

It’s only early days for artificial intelligence (AI), but the implications for Australia are becoming clear. AI has already made significant inroads in the technology sector, and it is hardly an exaggeration to say that over the coming decades it will impact every research, industry and government activity.

AI automates the process of organising data into the optimal categories. Importantly, it also automates decision-making based on those categories. In this sense, AI is the third wave of the information revolution: first there was the written word, then there was the printing press, and now there are libraries of agents that can deploy optimised decision-making for an increasing array of tasks. Each wave represents a change in the treatment of information – reading and writing to copying and distributing to automated analysis and decision-making. While the internet increased vastly the speed at which information could be distributed, it only enhanced the capabilities of the printing press to copy and distribute. AI is transforming the internet.

It became apparent in the early days of AI that an agent is only ever as good as the data it is trained on. While the world is awash with data, not all of it is of sufficient quality to train an AI system that will realise benefits when deployed. Even so, the application of AI to today’s data streams has opened up some interesting areas of development, and almost all lie somewhere on the scale of dual use. At an individual level, AI can assist with short-term actions ranging from online price optimisation through to refinement of search queries or micro-targeting of advertisements. At the community level, AI can be involved with curating and censoring information, predictive behavioural analysis and pattern detection.

Regardless of the use, some core systemic fundamentals remain the same. Both the Chinese and United States corporate IT behemoths have back doors to their respective governments, enabling intelligence collection and analysis supported by AI. With the maturation of facial recognition technology, the country in which your child’s favourite mobile app is domiciled suddenly begins to matter, a lot.

TikTok is one fascinating example. Developed by ByteDance, a Shanghai-based company, it’s a micro-video sharing service most popular among sixteen- to twenty-four-year-olds (who are 41 per cent of the current user base). The app has 26.5 million users in the United States alone. Factor in more accurate visual recognition technology, developments in “deep fakes” (fake AI-generated video content), the ability to access and interpret a mobile phone’s data points in real time and after the fact, and predictive behavioural analysis; it gives you one giant source of digital information and profiling. Social media channels and apps can become – and in some cases, already are – the pipelines feeding data to today’s and tomorrow’s AI agents.

It matters which apps you use, but it matters much more which apps you let your children use, and it follows from this that it matters which apps dominate a country’s user base. Data collected and exported to the United States or China may never be lost, and could conceivably be used to fuel the corporate- and state-based AI targeting of citizen-consumers for the rest of their life.

China has some of the strictest rules in the world regarding the export of data, rules that make a lot of sense given what we know today can be done with it. If anything, Australia’s data sovereignty policies should look more like China’s. Any data collected on Australians should stay in Australia. The potential value of that information tomorrow, in a year, in ten years, is unknowably high. Australia wouldn’t siphon off mineral resources in the same way it is siphoning off digital resources. Data needs to be imagined differently in Australia, especially because the digital world collided with the biological world quite some time ago.

The vast potential of engineering biology

The field of engineering biology doesn’t receive the same kind of attention AI does. Not yet. But it should. It’s another platform capability with potential for dual use, and with implications for the Australia–China relationship.

Broadly, engineering biology involves creating new organisms with a certain functionality, to use as sensors, medicines and other products. Examples include engineering yeast to produce quinine from sugar (for antimalarial drugs) or creating jet fuel from sugarcane agriwaste (used at Brisbane Airport). It’s one of the keys to the circular economy that the Chinese Academy of Sciences roadmap was focused on. It’s also essential to the development of Australian agriculture in the coming decades.

China has been pursuing biotechnology for some time. In 2014, the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) had one-quarter of global sequencing capacity, more than the capacity of the United States. This means that much of the world’s plant, animal and human genetic sequencing is being done in China, and that research partnerships with organisations such as BGI have become key to Australian biotech innovation.

Now, forget about Australia’s human genomic information for a moment. Our nation’s plant and animal genetics are unique. For example, Australia is home to plants with certain unique metabolic pathways for dealing with heat stress. Within that type of information exists the genetic and metabolic signposts for crafting the organisms that will become tomorrow’s industrial workhorses. While much genomic information is open-source, the way in which data is sent digitally from sample site to laboratory is a great enabler of genetic prospecting – that is, discovering new genetic information and the uses to which it may be put. Perhaps more importantly, it’s a great enabler of genetic piracy. This matters to Australia, and it matters to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities who have been the custodians of these plants and animals for tens of thousands of years.

Australia is one of the most valuable genetic goldmines in the world, but – as we do with every other type of data – we seriously under-appraise its value. China’s appetite for plant and animal genetic information will likely come to rival its appetite for minerals. This data will form the information that enables the design and engineering of tomorrow’s biological devices. Australia needs to shift its approach to its genetic information fundamentally in order to build a mutually beneficial trade in biological devices with China.

At the very least, this would offset some of the risks inherent in China cornering areas of the agritech sector – a sector essential to Australian prosperity. Crops engineered to withstand a changing climate, grow with little fertiliser and be protected from emerging infectious diseases will be critical for Australia in the future. The United States and Europe aren’t guaranteed to host corporations that have the biological devices Australia will need. It would be prudent to begin setting the terms for this trade now, and that involves taking stock of Australia’s genetic endowment and treating it in much the same way as we do our mineral resources, albeit with more involvement and leadership from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Australia’s collaboration with China in next-generation biology projects goes deeper than genetic information, though. The Human Genome Project, completed in 2003, was the world’s largest collaborative scientific project, a truly international endeavour. Today this well-known project is referred to as Genome Project Read, or GP-Read. What is less known is that it was preceded by the sequencing of lab yeast. The Yeast 2.0 project is due for completion soon. It has synthetically assembled the genome for lab yeast, the largest organism yet targeted for synthesis. The significance of this is due to what comes next. From eukaryotic organism to keystone mammalian genome, after Yeast 2.0 comes Genome Project Write, or GP-Write.

If scientific cooperation between the United States and China decouples completely, China is one of the few countries with the resources and expertise to go it alone with GP-Write. Taking into account the spill-over benefits that arose from GP-Read, whoever completes GP-Write will understand the intricacies of the human genome at an unprecedented level. That will place them in a prime position to capture windfall economic and health benefits for their respective populations.

Discoveries made during GP-Write may also have benefits in dealing with traditional biological risks, such as a global pandemic. That’s why it is essential the United States and China collaborate on research in this area of science. Bounded information sharing, not suspicion and secrecy, needs to be the order of the day.

A new digital convergence

The correlation of genetic material with digital identities is the next step for the surveillance state. If you think you are immune from these risks because you have never shared your genetic material, ask every one of your siblings and cousins if they’ve sent their DNA to AncestryDNA or 23andMe. Just as your digital profile can be extrapolated from someone similar enough to you, so too can your genetic profile.

Chinese-owned consortium projects such as the Digital Life Alliance by iCarbonX are already doing just this for human health. Modelling human health across the life course allows for predictive capabilities that can help manage health outcomes across an entire population. Think about what your mobile phone data could be used for if correlated against population-level genomic data. Health interventions could be better targeted, and health apps could provide personally tailored, evidence-based advice. It would be a brave, and better, new world.

Yet for all its advantages, the use of social genomics raises concerns that societies need to consider. Repositories of health data can become targets for cyberattacks. The correlation of digital and genomic data can also be used to reinforce structural societal inequities. Intelligence-gathering programs that seek to deploy this data will give rise to a range of ethical concerns. The boundaries of the bio-informational surveillance state are moving ever outwards, and Australia needs to think about what this means for its relationship with China and the United States.

In order to prepare for these kinds of capabilities, Australia needs to know what is possible, today and tomorrow. Decoupling technologically from China is not going to do Australia any favours. The opportunity to influence the development of China’s science and technology future will only come through continued engagement, and continued research collaboration, in ways that ensure Australian research contributes to responsible innovation.

In the looming science and technology revolution, of which we are on the precipice, nearly every system, organism or product developed will have dual uses. China sees dominance in science and technology as historically correlated with great power status. History since the Industrial Revolution tends to back up this reasoning. But whether the link is causative remains to be seen – as does the role that Australia will play in this new technological future. 

Thom Dixon is vice president of the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW and a PhD candidate in the School of Modern History, Politics and International Relations at Macquarie University. Read our interview with Thom here