(Brig (retd) GB Reddi)
Today, it is the “Technology Age”. Where does India stand in the Technology Marathon Race? In the past, experts claimed India to be a “Software Superpower”! But where does India stand in the “TECHNOLOGY Marathon Race” particularly with China?
For a layman like me, it is not easy to comprehend the width and breadth of the full spectrum of Technology Age. Gone are the days of vague vocabulary of “Sun-rise or frontier Technologies” of 2001 decade. Todays’ technology spectrum is far more exciting. Making waves are quantum computing, quantum sensors, Artificial Intelligence (AI), hypersonic, small drones, quantum communications, 5G, facial recognition software, e-commerce and mobile payments (with 700 million internet users), electric vehicles, clean power technology (wind and solar), high-speed rail, and the world’s largest database of genetic engineering data.
China’s goals are clear — in Xi’s words, “catch up and surpass” the U.S. China views technology as mainspring of national power. Gone are the days of “reverse engineering” or dependence on “transfer of technologies”. Nowadays the Chinese focus is on dual-use technology indigenous innovation, research, design and development with dramatic implications for the commercial economy and military capability.
China’s approach to innovation leapfrogging includes: 1) massive funding for research; 2) improving domestic education through reforms; 3) attracting overseas Chinese by incentives; 4) recruiting the best talent from overseas — the Thousand Talents Plan — as well as sending gifted students abroad to universities such as Cambridge, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Stanford through the Young Thousand Talents plan; and 5) arranging several partnerships with universities in the United States, Australia, and Canada, among others.
China’s leaders are funding billions to universities and national labs. Additionally, national champions such as Alibaba, which recently committed $15 billion to quantum development, are mobilizing R&D dollars to achieve commercial dominance.
While the U.S. still leads China in more technologies than vice versa, China is catching up with U.S. technology leads in quantum computing, quantum sensors, AI and genetic engineering. China progress in the development of fifth-generation (5G) wireless technology, weapons enabled by autonomy and artificial intelligence (AI), power grid cyber security, financial technology, biotechnology, surveillance technologies, semiconductors, and space technology are militarily quite significant.
When viewed from the military and strategic balance, China’s advances in quantum technologies have the potential to dramatically alter the current status favouring USA. The combination of classical and quantum computing may provide more advanced simulations, enhance machine learning capabilities, and highlight useful information more easily from noisy, unstructured data. Specific applications could include advances in materials science, better understanding of new chemistries for pharmaceutical development, and the next generation of AI. Quantum technology can potentially be applied to sensors that can better detect near-silent submarines and precision navigation that does not rely on GPS.
Furthermore, the China’s defence industry has been pursuing significant investments in robotics, swarming, and other applications of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). Thus far, advances in weapons systems described or advertised as “autonomous” or “intelligentized” have built upon existing strengths in the research and development of unmanned systems and missile technology.
In outer space, China has rapidly expanded its presence – both the civil and military arenas. China’s People’s Liberation Army has conducted a major reorganization to better integrate space, cyberspace, and electronic warfare systems with its other military capabilities. China is developing and deploying a robust full spectrum of ASAT capabilities. These include a network of space situational awareness sensors “capable of searching, tracking, and characterizing satellites in all Earth orbits;” electronic warfare capabilities designed to jam satellite transmissions; laser weapons to “disrupt, degrade, or damage satellites and their sensors;” offensive cyber capabilities to target computer networks; sophisticated in-orbit satellite attack capabilities; and ground-based missiles designed to destroy satellites kinetically.
In addition to its ASAT capabilities, China is improving and expanding its other national security space-related capabilities. For example, China possesses a robust constellation of intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance (ISR) satellites that allow it to monitor political and military developments around the world. China currently operates over 120 ISR and remote sensing satellites, second only to the United States. China also operates approximately 34 communication satellites, of which about four are dedicated exclusively for military uses. Finally, China is continuing to expand its BeiDou precision, navigation, and timing (PNT) system, which is similar to the U.S. Global Positioning Systems (GPS).
Furthermore, the big names of Chinese “Technology Brands” include: Huwaei, TikTok, WeChat, ByteDance, ZTE, Trencent etc.
Ipso facto, most impressive are the Chinese advancements in digital arena. Whereas America led the global revolution in payments half a century ago with magnetic striped credit and debit cards, today China is leading the new revolution in digital payments. China’s new system is built on digital wallets, QR codes (two-dimensional bar codes), and runs through their own big tech firms: Alipay running through Alibaba (China’s version of Amazon) and WeChat Pay running through Trencent (China’s version of Face book). It has created an alternative payment ecosystem with different incentives between merchants, consumers, and payment system providers.
It challenges the long-standing placement of payments on the side of banking as opposed to commerce. In doing so, this system has created new incentives that realign existing business models and relationships between merchants, banks, and technology providers. The powerful reach of these platforms — combining information on social connectivity and financial flows between and among individuals and firms — opens up a new range of possibilities, and major concerns regarding privacy.
China is also in the lead in biotechnology including military uses of human performance enhancement and synthetic bio weapons production and access to and control over biomedical data, which could fuel AI for biomedical applications, and shape the economic competitiveness of the other nation’s biotechnology sector.
In sum, China has taken unsurpassable lead in innovation in many areas over India. The Chinese military and defence industry major initiatives could threaten global security and stability, particularly as U.S.-China rivalry intensifies. The rapid technological advances are playing a leading role in contemporary geopolitical competition. Security analysts apprehend that China may deploy or exploit technology in ways that challenge many other nation’s core interests and values. Of course, they are spiralling U.S.-China tensions: U.S. alliance management challenges; complex and shifting global supply chains; debates over economic and technology “decoupling”; tensions between norms of research openness and concerns about technology transfer; a contest for global technology standard-setting; rapid technological development in other countries, particularly in East Asia; and transnational debate about the regulation of large technology firms.
Where does India stand in the “Technology Age Marathon Race”? India’s quest for self reliance, particularly military technologies in all domains, remains a mirage considering the poor and unsatisfactory performance of our R & D and S & T institutions. The exception is the Space Department, which has been giving breakthroughs. It is high time that agencies like “Aeronautical Design and Development Agencies (ADA)” be placed under the management of Space Organization to fast track the design and development of the “State-of-the art Jet Engines both in the military and civilian fields” to substitute extravagant import needs. Otherwise, India would remain a perpetual laggard.
Can Indian indigenous “Academia and Industry” give nation significant breakthroughs in all fields? It is high time for the S & T community to stop “Reinventing the Wheel” or “Reverse Engineering” focus and overtly depend on foreign nations for “Transfer of Technologies” and core systems like jet fighter engines. Unless, the S & T community emerge as “original innovators” in all fields, India cannot lay claims to be an emerging power by 2050. And, the IITs and the premier industrial houses must partner to innovate. And, they must be financially supported by the government.
In particular, India needs to develop a strategy that deters China’s advancing anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities, while also addressing sustainability and safety concerns like orbital debris, space traffic management, and the rise of mega-satellite constellations.
Can Indian S & T community bridge the technology gaps and voids to challenge China in the game-changing fields of 5G, AI, quantum, and genetic engineering? To do so, India needs allocate and invest billions of dollars to make rapid transformations in all fields. “Innovate in India and Made by India” by 2025 should be the end objective. Will Academia and Private Sector take up the challenge to compete with China and others in the field?
Time for the media to focus their attention on the “Key Technology Age Issues” and conduct prime time debates to spread awareness of where India stands today and identify and define policies and plans to achieve desired end objectives by specific time frames.
The Chinese approach in the foregoing is a good template to follow. No point in a large number of Engineering Colleges conducting antiquated syllabi. Incentivising to encouraging Indian experts in various domains from other nations is an imperative. Similarly, holding “Talent Competitions” and awarding the young intellectuals is absolute necessity. Finally, appropriate targeted financial allocations to various agencies with accountability to deliver clearly outlined.
To make debates worthwhile, even media houses must enlist panellists with domain expertise instead of political spokespersons hijacking debates indulging in utter cacophony.
Finally, no point or useful purpose is served by holding conferences, attending convocations and holding conferences and webinars in today’s COVID-19 context.
Modi must start visiting academic institutions like I.I. Sc, Bengaluru, IITs, Space and DRDO Research and Development institutions, private industry establishments of excellence to gain firsthand knowledge of their ongoing projects and their relevance, guide, encourage and inspire them to achieve time bound breakthroughs.