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.