Fear Not China’s Supercomputer

China’s innovation progress, including its new supercomputer, the world’s fastest, is a benefit—not a threat—to the U.S. Pro or con?

Pro: A We-Are-the-World Breakthrough

The advent of China’s lightning-fast supercomputer demonstrates that Chinese scientists and engineers are taking their place on the world stage, and that the country will be an increasingly important source of new ideas and technology for many years to come.

This is good news. China’s success does not come at our expense. The creation of knowledge is not a zero-sum game. New discoveries in one place lead to other discoveries in other places, and we all benefit as a result. More investment in science and technology in China could lead to new breakthroughs in the U.S. in creating new materials, treating diseases, and developing more energy-efficient products and cleaner energy technologies.

But the biggest opportunity for the U.S. comes from how we respond to the growing technological capability of China. In a word, our response needs to be “open.” Many of my students are from China, and they are as hard-working and entrepreneurial as my students from Silicon Valley. They are eager to work for leading companies around the globe. And they will move from one company to another if they see a better opportunity. So it behooves U.S. companies to create those opportunities. It is also wise for U.S. firms to increase their activities in China, which is already the world’s second-largest economy and will likely be the largest fairly soon.

By all means we should increase our own investment in research and development here in the U.S. If China’s having a faster computer will spur us to do this, so be it. But the rise of China will continue regardless of what we do. So in addition to increasing our own science and technology spending, I would recommend we greatly expand the teaching of Mandarin in our elementary and secondary schools. We should replicate the scholarship programs that send U.S. students to Europe so that they can also go to China. We should increase exchanges in high schools that bring Chinese students here to the U.S.

Our open society is second to none at getting the best from the world around us. The 21st century can be a time of great opportunity for us, as long as we open ourselves to it.

Con: Spotlight on U.S. Vulnerability

I surprise myself by occupying the con side of this debate since in general I believe a world richer in innovation capacity is a better and potentially more peaceful world.

I also believe that China’s time has come in humanity’s race to the innovation high ground. The benefits of peace for a country that has seen precious little of it, and the visible gains that have resulted in terms of social and economic development, are rewards richly deserved and merit applause.

At the same time, I worry about America’s loss of leadership in strategic industries—alternative energy, materials science, and now supercomputing. In particular, I am concerned from a national security perspective about the destabilizing effect of massive new waves of innovation that we don’t control or in some cases don’t even understand.

If history holds any lessons for us, it is that great powers rise and fall. And the subtext of these transitions often translates into object lessons in the dangers of incumbency and the disruptive power of innovation. Genghis Khan and the Mongols prevailed militarily because of the stirrup. Britain applied lessons learned from the Industrial Revolution to the organization of war. And we are fresh from an American century inextricably woven together with the Atomic Age and the kind of cyberwarfare enabled by digital technology. Each wave of innovation rode its own wave of economic surplus and societal momentum.

Now it may be China’s turn.

In the future, we are likely to see many new phenomena that originate from China as the fruits of its massive and ongoing investment in education, design, science, and talent. At the same time, America seems to be in a period of innovation disinvestment as we continue to spend on two wars, endure a meltdown in our ability to educate the young, suffer from financial instability, and cast about for a satisfying national narrative.

While it is too early to say that the U.S. is being outpaced by other nations, our innovation eminence is ours to lose and with it our unique abilities to generate wealth. Meanwhile, the foxholes of tomorrow may be the research centers of today. It is through such lenses that we must also consider the potentially destabilizing reality of China’s growing technological eminence.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the Bloomberg BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or Bloomberg LP.

Reader Comments

TiffanySouthall

You said it the best. China's rise is going to happen regardless. It is just destiny, but how they will fall is unknown.

Mostansar Virk

It would definitely be better for other world economies to be open to Chinese innovation. In my opinion, cons are a non-issue. The promise of science and technology is that it can enable countries to improve the lifestyle of its citizens. This ultimately means more commerce on a global level.

James Markin

Great debate Henry, but as a current student myself, finding college programs that currently support European studying abroad heavily is almost tied with China TOEFL programs. The U.S. should invest financially and donate funding for Mandarin programs; you will only then see substantial growth.

PJ

The "Chinese supercomputer" is made up of American CPUs (chips/brains of computers). China's Tianhe-1A supercomputer uses 7,168 Nvidia Tesla M2050 GPUs and 14,336 Intel Xeon CPUs.

aaron

The globalisation/technology mix has shrunk the world to the size of a (potentially) small family. We all have to make it a happy family, by recognizing each other's abilities and fulfilling the other's needs with the best of our resources. Each complements the other, and all are winners, thereby rendering the very nature of competition obsolete. The infinite pie is big enough that everyone benefits and grows.

Jacob

I'm sick of chicken littles going around yelling, "The sky is falling, the Chinese are coming!" America is about to launch a SC that is four times faster than the Chinese one sometime next year. Chinese used Intel and Invidia chips and its OS is mainly European and American. In other words, without Silicon Valley, they would not be able to independently manufacture a SC. Yes, this is the first time that the Chinese made a SC that is faster than the US one. It's about time. If you link enough of these Intel processors with a dedicated coal/wind/solar power plant for the SC, and some hefty cooling system, you can build anything.

We are a 14 trillion economy, theirs is 5, and the number 3 Japan is also 5. The British navy in the 19th century had a rule that their navy should be larger than the number 2 and 3 navies combined. My math tells me 5+5=10

That said, we should go whole hog libertarian; should have let failing banks fail and put Goldmansucks and AIG into controlled implosion and rid ourselves of Fannie Mae and Freddie.

Isaac Mihaeli

The biggest damage is not the Supercomputer, but American companies that created the industrial revolution in China on the expense of the economy. If the trend continues, we will slide and be a second class economy that sell recycled metal and other raw material and imports consumer goods.

It is obvious that the Chinese economy is bigger in comparison but not in dollar value since the cost of living is more expensive in the US. However, in quantity per volume, the Chinese is a bigger economy because of a larger export as well larger population.


Richard

It doesn't matter if the SC is made up of US chips; it is the techniques and ability to link them up and achieve the speed that matters. One should recognize the growing ability of Chinese to achieve such a feat.

When the Chinese sent a man into space orbit, I asked them why they were so happy as the Americans had done that forty years ago. The reply was we were now only forty years behind. Beware, folks.

America has enjoyed untold and less than fair at times advantages all over the world because of its technological prowess and military supremacy long enough to be taken for granted. America does need shock waves like this.

Maersk

To PJ and Jacob, you are right about Intel and Nvidia being American. One thing you might not have realized is that Intel's founder is not American and the founder of Nvidia is Chinese. You should be glad that America has all the help from foreigners while the Chinese basically rely on themselves.

Good GRIEF!

China represents the only real growth market, and for an "American" CEO, who needs to harvest vast, obscene payola in just 5-10 years, selling critical technology to our future enemies, is a sure fire method to enrich himself.

There is no patriotism or loyalty, today; it's all about the Almighty Dollar and it's pagan value. Even everyday people would tell Congress (like they need an inducement) to "sell, sell, sell" if it mean a meal for today, and to Hell with tomorrow.'

Yes, the 'commies' know, American capitalists will sell them the rope with which to hang us, and the guillotines, to lop off our own heads.


Such a smart people.

Jacob

Someone should resurrect Reagan to put an end to all these belly-button-watching lilly livered headless chickens. Founder of Intel is Hungarian-American. Founder of Nvidia is Chinese-American. Yup. All American.

Henry L.

China will rise, but America will remain the dominant country for the foreseeable future. If America plays its cards right, it can easily attract the best and the brightest to build this country. There is also a large home-grown talent that can compete with the best of them. But we surely will fail if we get more people like, "Good grief."

AJ

Some years ago we wanted to develop a geo-science software and rent time on an IBM Blue Gene supercomputer to run it. Our customers would have been oil exploration companies here in Pakistan and the Middle East. But IBM totally denied us remote access to their machine and even refused to sell us the compiler needed to write the software. They were even quite rude and high-handed about the whole matter. As a result, we lost our investment in that business. Now we have an excellent alternative in China. Even if the Chinese machines were not the world's fastest, they would still be fast enough for us. And we would not need to put up with any bull. Great job, China!

Richard

To have extreme pride and down-playing the challenges that others are up and coming like Jacob is disturbing. Fifty or hundred years in history is a very short time span, and catching up for lesser developed countries is invariably shorter than those pioneers that had to go through.

One should put it in perspective that America is blessed with brilliant immigrants absorbed by the equally brilliant immigration policies to suit. If you look at those old civilizations, their advancement had been hampered by their old, and often backward, history baggage. China is a bit different in my view, in that, a lot of that baggage had been intentionally or unintentionally dismantled by the communist regime, so once unleashed, they have the same momentum to strive to succeed that is comparable to the American seeking the American dream.

If you go to China today, you could hardly smell the existence of Communism in this vast land. Capitalists make and create things to sell to enrich themselves. If one capitalist does not want to sell, another will do so. If you do not keep them buying, technically you could only slow them but you could not never stop them. SC is the case in point. The fear is not whether the Chinese have the fastest SC, rather the fear is America is not advancing fast enough.

Wayne

China has grown and opened up like never before. A lot their future leaders will be foreign-educated (mostly US university).

The problem for them will be bringing up the massive poor population (99.5% of the 1.6 billion), which make only $100 or less per month, while the rest of 0.5% are making and enjoying a life style that rival the likes of Beverly Hills.

For example, the rich regularly play golf like we do here, but they can afford to spend $1,500 RMB (=$250 US) for a round of golf each and the caddie that pulls their bag around only make $100 RMb (=$15US) a day. They have luxury condos that price around US $5 million and are sold within days--not even Beverly Hills can rival that kind of real estate volume. That is the kind of income gap and uneven wealth spread their future leaders will need to deal with while they are fighting the world to gain the resources for their continued expansion.

Fear not Americans, we will benefit more when China continues to prosper, live, and think more like Americans. The only thing we really need to worry about is the limited resources of the earth that can supply our way of life.

Prince Ray

Hey:
Wait a minute, isn't it our Cray Research that started the world's Superfast computer. My family friend Romeo was a lead designer there. America must stop wasting time on game consoles and get real about competition, innovation, and education again. What we need are leaders who truly lead us into the 21st century, not merely boast about their respective accomplishments. But, rather like Lee Ioccoa did, spend time with the masses and give us their insights and directions.

What we need is a government that stops giving tax incentives to companies that outsource jobs to China, India, and the rest of the world. What we need is a government that stops giving education grants and loans to non-Americans like they did when we served our country, and wondered why, after seeing educational grants and loans going to foreignors.

What we need is a government that gives grants to its people to continue in educations for the 21st Century.

What we need is a government that expands the small business administration, and one that actually gives loans to our people who truly desire to build small businesses. Why is it that banks keep telling about all the monies they have, yet small business owners aren't getting the fundings.

2Bob

Americans need to get over it. What do you expect? For Chinese to remain poor and downtrodden?

Just because China gets richer does not mean that the living standards of the US should decline.

James A Burt

Ever hear of the NP-complete problem?

chinamanho

The Chinese understand the English, other Western languages, and their cultures are in huge numbers; of course they are able to have the first-hand information of the Western world development.

On the other hand, only a few Westerners understand a very limited amount of the Chinese language and culture. Sometimes, the comments by those called specialist of China make me laugh.

The world is moving ahead. The US and the balance of the world should assign more resources to learning the Chinese languages and her culture--otherwise it's a losing battle.

Roger

You are very deluded if you think that China will share their research dividends with the U.S. Whatever they can steal, borrow, or buy, they do so.

What they can discover, develop, or determine stays a military secret.

The wolf in sheep's clothing still clings closely to its Communist ideology even with its embrace of Capitalism. Look for them to be emboldened as their wealth and technologial prowess increase.

Be afraid, be very afraid.

Malcolm D

Down with America!

Rise the new masters, the Chinese.

All hail the Chinese. Kick those fat, stupid, illiterate Yankees to the gutter.

Peace at last.

No America.

Ondih prayudhi

China is representive of Asian development, but it's different with Japan. They can't be controlled by America. We all know Japan is the biggest ally of America. I think they're just like an American doll, but it's different with China. They could attack America. That's why the U.S. should be afraid of the Super Computer by China.

SomeoneWhoReadtheList

@Jacob,

Stacking up CPUs does not make computers indefinitely faster, or there won't be the point of having a list of supercomputers; the limiting factor is how fast chips can talk to each other, and the Chinese have faster 'infiniband' cables. There are also some Chinese CPUs mixed with Intel and Nvidia chips.

Glen Stark

That China is outperforming us technologically is no surprise. That China is doing well is not something to be concerned about, but that we are doing so poorly is something to be deeply concerned about. Instead of dumping around a trillion dollars a year to dominate the world militarily, we should be investing that money in reducing the national debt, educating our citizens, and in basic research.

Muralita

To all the hand-wringers I say, please read Guy Sormon's "Empire of Lies" before giving up on open society and kow-towing to the new kid on the block. There is much that is good in modern-day China, no doubt. But can anyone get everything so right time after time? Can a bunch of cloistered commissars have so much wisdom as against the wisdom of the crowds? Despondence is a misplaced reaction to this news.

Bob

There's nothing wrong with China's achievement. We are failing to keep on pace. Maybe it's time for America and the world to change the grand bargains struck that made the US the world's policeman.

The costs of our military and one-way access to our economy is stifling our ability to compete.

Mike Wrona

@ PJ,
Nvidia's chips are manufactured in Taiwan. Outsourcing does not help the U.S. economy $1; it only puts us farther behind in the technology race.

Brian

Smart Chinese will still come to America, UK, Canada, or Australia for their PhDs or MBAs. The U.S. can influence them while they are here.

Richard

I do not think one should complain about the cost of keeping military at such levels that make the US the world's policeman. You should look at those incidences when the unruly or less than obedient states' arms are twisted.

One should not complain about loss of decent paid jobs due to outsourcing. You should ask yourself if you would take the job at that price if they are made available to you. You shouldn't be envious about your maid having a job to do the laborious work that you do not need to do anymore. Apple wouldn't move their manufacturing jobs back to the US at any rate. Why? Ask them if you may.

The form of economy has simply been transformed and you make your living in different form, more of service oriented. You perish if you do not adapt.

I feel that containment strategies always fail--you make people try harder to breakthrough the barriers, and they do. On the other hand, if you are able to make your potential competitors less viable economically or deprive them of the necessity in re-inventing the wheel, you could keep yourselves ahead, never mind about how and where you are doing it. Come to think of it, if China had been offered the super computers (of course, not the fastest one at the time) at a reasonable price, would they go to do their own? I don't think they would. Ask Airbus what they had done to killing off China's first attempt many years ago in building their own commercial aircraft (not the present project). It was arithmetic and arithmetic still applies.

kh66

Intel or Nvidia/AMD chips are designed in the USA, Germany, Israel, and India, manufactured in Singapore, Costa Rica, Indonesia and Taiwan, assembled in China and soon in Vietnam.

It's like cars. You can put together all the pieces in one plant in Alabama, but the design and the pieces come from all over the world.

And that's without talking 'bout the origins of all the capital needed for financing all that corps, commerce, etc. (USA, Germany, Japan, England, Brazil, Russia, China)

Daisy

China’s supercomputer did use US chips, but it is Chinese scientists themselves that developed a new technology to link GPUs up. That matters. China’s innovative capacity can’t be neglected as well.

Sometimes other’s advance doesn’t mean a threat to you. Maybe it presents an opportunity to improve your condition. As is known to all, Benz and BMW are both world-class brands. Once a correspondent asked the president of Benz, “Why are your cars developed fast and are so popular in the world?” The president answered, “Because BMW catches us without a moment off.” Then the correspondent asked BMW’s president the same question, and the answer is “Because Benz runs too fast.” Through this, we can see that other’s advance can be a driving force for you.

Today’s world is underpinned by cutting-edge technology and ongoing waves of innovation. Different countries should exchange ideas and learn from each other, so mutual benefits and common development can be achieved.

Aziz Alfaz

I don't agree that Chinese the supercomputer will/is a threat for U.S. This can't be an issue because the U.S is far innovative and smart, that they will innovate another supercomputer very soon. And also, technological innovation is open to all--that's why the U.S is in safe side.

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