Complex Made Simple

The race for frontier technology: Who’s leading and how?

Which countries are pushing technological boundaries to take humanity beyond what we can imagine today?

China will increase R&D spending by more than 7% per year between 2021 and 2025 China plans to look into “brain-inspired computing” as well as “brain-computer fusion technology The world's fastest supercomputer has officially been completed in Japan

Which countries are pushing technological boundaries to take humanity beyond what we can imagine today?

Frontier technologies, fascinating as they may be, may produce results we may never agree with, that could challenge our very sets of values and beliefs. 

But they are coming and the race to produce them first is on. 

Frontier technologies include artificial intelligence, the internet of things, big data, blockchain, fifth-generation mobile telephony, three-dimensional printing, robotics, drones (remotely controlled flights), gene-editing, nanotechnology, and solar power, among others. 

China going all out on frontier tech

China is looking to boost research into what it calls “frontier technology” including quantum computing and semiconductors, as it competes with the U.S. for supremacy in the latest innovations.

Premier Li Keqiang recently said that China would increase research and development spending by more than 7% per year between 2021 and 2025, in pursuit of “major breakthroughs” in technology.

As such, China has concentrated on boosting its domestic expertise in areas it sees as strategically important and now it has laid out 7 “frontier technologies” that it will prioritize for the next 5 years, and beyond.

1) Artificial intelligence (AI)

China plans to focus on specialized chip development for AI applications and developing so-called open-source algorithms.  There will also be an emphasis on machine learning in areas such as decision making.  Machine learning is the development of AI programs trained on vast amounts of data.  Major companies such as Alibaba and Baidu have been investing in the technology. A group of experts chaired by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt said China could soon replace the U.S. as the world’s “AI superpower.”

2) Quantum information

Quantum computing is seen as another area of competition between the U.S. and China. 

3) Integrated circuits or semiconductors

Semiconductors are a critical area for China and one it has invested a lot in over the past few years.

The problem is the complexity of the semiconductor supply chain. Taiwan’s TSMC and South Korea’s Samsung are the two most advanced chip manufacturers but they rely on tools from the U.S. and Europe.

Washington has put SMIC, China’s biggest chip manufacturer, on an export blacklist called the Entity List. SMIC cannot get its hands on American technology. And the U.S. has reportedly pushed to stop Dutch company ASML from shipping a key tool that could help SMIC catch up to rivals.

In its 5-year plan, China says it will focus on research and development in integrated circuit design tools, key equipment, and key materials.

Chips are incredibly important because they go into many of the devices we use such as smartphones but are also important for other industries.

4) Brain science

China plans to research areas such as how to stop diseases of the brain.

But it also says that it plans to look into “brain-inspired computing” as well as “brain-computer fusion technology,” according to a CNBC translation. 

However, such work is already underway in the U.S. at Elon Musk’s company Neuralink. Musk is working on implantable brain-chip interfaces to connect humans and computers.

5) Genomics and biotechnology

With the outbreak of the coronavirus last year, biotechnology has grown in importance.

China says it will focus on “innovative vaccines” and “research on biological security.”

6) Clinical medicine and health

China’s research will concentrate on understanding the progression of cancer, cardiovascular, respiratory, and metabolic diseases.

The government also says that it will research some “cutting-edge” treatment technologies such as regenerative medicine. This involves medicine that can regrow or repair damaged cells, tissues and organs.

7) Deep space, deep earth, deep-sea, and polar research

Space exploration has been a top priority for China recently. Beijing said it will focus on research into the “origin and evolution of the universe,” exploration of Mars as well as deep-sea and polar research.

In December, a Chinese spacecraft returned to Earth carrying rocks from the moon. It was the first time China has launched a spacecraft from an extraterrestrial body and the first time it has collected moon samples. 

And in July, China launched a mission to Mars called Tianwen -1.

Read: Growth in health and med-tech industry to accelerate as regional demand rises

Read: Quantum computing: Threat to encryption rises but benefits abound

World’s fastest computer

Japan has also just launched the world’s top supercomputer. After seven years in the works, the world’s fastest supercomputer has officially been completed in Japan and is now available for researchers to start using, for projects ranging from fighting climate change to discovering new drugs. 

Building the Fugaku supercomputer started in 2014  Since May 2020, trials of the system have been ongoing, mainly with projects aiming to accelerate research to combat the COVID-19 pandemic

The computer is now fully open for shared use, and Japan’s Research Organization for Information Science and Technology (RIST) has already selected 74 research projects that will be implemented from next month. 

RIST has also urged researchers to submit proposals for new projects and invited all applications to be sent in as part of a call for Trial Access Projects. 

RIST president Yasuhide Tajima said: “I look forward to seeing this most powerful ‘external brain’ ever developed by humanity helping to expand our knowledge, enabling us to gain deeper insights into the foundation of matter in both time and space, giving us a better structural and functional analysis of life, society, and industry, enabling more accurate predictions; and even designing the unknown future of humanity.” 

At 442 petaflops, (floating-point operations per second is a measure of computer performance), Fugaku stands a long way ahead of competitors, with three times more capability than the number two system on the list, IBM’s Summit, which has a performance of 148.8 petaflops. 

Among the many anticipated outcomes feature high-speed and high-precision drug discovery simulations, early detection of diseases, accurate predictions and simulation of natural disasters, creation of new materials for next-generation batteries or fuel cells, and even increased insights into fundamental science questions such as the creation of the universe. 

In a separate project, Japan’s Tokyo Medical and Dental University (TMDU) and Fujitsu Laboratories revealed that the supercomputer had enabled them to achieve cancer gene analysis in less than a day, instead of months.  

Other nations are ramping up their efforts to develop ever-more-powerful devices. The US, for example, is currently building two exascale computing systems expected to launch next year. China and the EU have also both announced projects to develop exaflop-capable supercomputers in the next few years. 

India, an overperformer in frontier tech

India was the biggest ‘overperformer’ in frontier technologies, according to a recent country-readiness index released by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

India’s actual index ranking was 43, while the estimated one based on per capita income was 108. This meant that India overperformed other countries by 65 ranking positions. It was followed by the Philippines, which overperformed by 57 ranking positions.

China was at position 25; both India and China performed well in research and development.