Scientific and technological progress is based on collaborations, on the exchange of knowledge and experience, on a global market of ideas. Any harm to the ability of scientists to communicate freely across political borders will also harm their ability to produce new knowledge, new ideas and ultimately - also new technologies * and this is even before China's threat to invade Taiwan
Those who know me know that I am optimistic by nature: I like to cover scientific and technological developments that can improve the lives of all of us. This time, I want to write about a negative development, with catastrophic potential in the end. The United States declared war on China last week - and in the same breath showed the way to a divided, demobilized and disintegrated world. And perhaps worst of all, this could mean that the rate of progress in science and technology will slow down, with dire consequences for all of us.
The declaration of war came in plain words in a White House statement from the last ten days. The Biden administration banned the export to China of semiconductor chips of the types that could provide it with particularly great advantages in the fields of the economy, industry, health and of course - security.
What does this dramatic step mean? In the words of Jake Sullivan, the National Security Adviser at the White House, these technologies -
"Produce a second-game in health and medicine, food security and free energy. We will see far-reaching breakthroughs and new industries that will advance our wealth. And of course, new intelligence and military capabilities that will shape our national security."
The Americans do not want the Chinese to have the computing capabilities that would allow all this abundance. They want the Chinese to be left behind - it is not clear how far behind - when it comes to supercomputers and artificial intelligence. Countries that cannot conduct research using this equipment will be left behind in all these areas. This is what the Americans want to do to China.
One can argue a lot about the justice of Biden's decision, and ask whether it is really appropriate to impose sanctions on China. I don't want to focus on that question here, but on the implications of the decision. These will be very different depending on the way in which China decides to accept the new situation: by taking action, or by equanimity.
The most obvious action China could take is to invade Taiwan and take over its chipmaking infrastructure. This would be, without exaggerating too much, a shot in the foot of the industry in the United States. The leading chip manufacturing company in Taiwan is TSMC, which produces - mind you - ninety percent of the advanced chips used in the United States. You read that right, ninety percent. And all China has to do to dam this river, is to transport the entire army it has been preparing and upgrading for more than a decade, to a tiny country that is still not ready to recognize its independence.
Want to guess how the United States will react in a situation where China threatens ninety percent of its chip supply?
Now you understand why I wrote at the beginning of the entry that this is a development with catastrophic potential in the end.
I want to believe that China will show patience, publicly resent the attempt of the United States to achieve "scientific-technological hegemony" (as the Chinese embassy in Washington has already described the situation), but will keep its military within its borders. The trouble is that even in this "best case scenario", it still means that we are entering a new era in which the three powers - the United States, China and Russia - are trying to prevent each other from achieving scientific-technological achievements, instead of promoting them together.
Scientific and technological progress is based on collaborations, on the exchange of knowledge and experience, on a global market of ideas. No less important than that, these days it is also based on computing infrastructures. The West has already imposed sanctions on the chips being transferred to Russia following the war, effectively leaving it planted somewhere in the late XNUMXs. Russia's abilities to promote science and technology in its territory in this situation aim for zero. Now the United States is trying to do the same to China - which is 'a little' bigger and more advanced than Russia. Even if China does not invade Taiwan, it will try to harm the United States in a variety of other ways, including cyber attacks. And of course any chance of scientific-technological cooperation between the superpowers will be completely destroyed.
If this is what happens, then the pace of technology improvement will inevitably suffer. And no, this is not a war situation in which both sides compete with each other and improve their capabilities quickly. The war this time is over infrastructure, and each side will try to damage the other side's abilities to make use of the computing capabilities that will give it an advantage. And in general, any damage to the ability of scientists to communicate freely across political borders will also damage their ability to produce new knowledge, new ideas and ultimately - also new technologies.
Why is it so bad for all of us? Because technology was supposed to save us all.
To stop the climate crisis we need technologies for absorbing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and turning them into fuel, food and plastic. These will be developed using artificial intelligence, supercomputers and quantum computers that will do advanced chemical simulations.
To stop the diseases of old age such as arteriosclerosis, cancer and Alzheimer's, we need technologies to simulate the body and design nanomachines and new drugs.
To make sure that the world can enjoy more available and healthier food, fresh water and renewable energy, we need a lot more inventions - all of which were supposed to arrive in the coming decades. Any delay in the development of technology will ultimately hurt us all.
What is the solution? Here's the way you'll know I'm not a politician: I say unequivocally, with full self-confidence and complete belief that... I'm not sure. No one knows. As I wrote, it is also possible to understand why the United States is trying to limit China's access to technology that will improve its military capabilities. But it's hard for me not to grieve - really grieve - for every step that slows down the progress of technology and will almost certainly harm the planet and the chance of all of us reaching the age of 120-plus-plus in good health.
If you have a solution to the situation, you are welcome to offer it in the comments. I have a feeling that not only is China very attentive to any discussion on the issue, but it will also be happy for any creative solution. And the whole world is with her.
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