China, how it is undermining the technological primacy of the United States

China, how it is undermining the technological primacy of the United States


Now that we're all mesmerized by the new and eloquent artificial intelligence (Ai) chatbots, it's easy to forget that most of the most remarkable breakthroughs in science and technology depend on much less glossy advances in the fundamentals of computing: new algorithms, different hardware architectures, and innovative silicon chips.

Since the dawn of computing, the United States has largely dominated these innovative industries. However, a new report by academics studying advances in computing argues that, in many ways, the US lead in advanced computing has declined significantly over the past five years, especially relative to China.

It's now a fact that the United States no longer produces many of the world's most advanced computer chips. Apple and several other companies now outsource their microchips to TSMC in Taiwan or Samsung in South Korea. This is why the US government passed the Chips Act, a $52 billion package that aims to revitalize chip manufacturing and related technologies nationwide.

The new report published by the Massachusetts institute of technology (MIT) with the think tank Council on competitiveness and the investment company Silicon Catalyst, shows that in the last five years, even the American share of the most powerful supercomputers in the world has dropped significantly.

Despite traditionally have guided the development of new algorithms, moreover, also in this field some parameters used to measure innovation – such as the Gordon Bell prize, awarded to scientists who have distinguished themselves in the advanced information technology sector – indicate that the United States has lost their advantage in favor of China.

From one point of view, the conclusions of the report are not surprising. China has made great economic progress in recent decades, which has boosted the country's universities and technology industry, making it a cornerstone of manufacturing innovation for many US companies.

But the report is also a message for the future that US policymakers had better heed, especially given that advances in information technology will be crucial to the advancement of key industries such as energy, climate science and medicine, thanks to their ability to model incredibly complex phenomena.

Neil Thompson , an MIT researcher who participated in the report, explains that modern AI systems, such as ChatGpt and art generation algorithms , are based on the advances of a particular type of computer chip: the graphics processing unit (GPU). Originally these units were invented to perform the operations required to render video game graphics, but they later turned out to be suitable for the calculations used for an AI technique known as deep learning.

Over time, the Companies have designed and built more advanced versions of GPUs, connecting thousands of them via fiber optic interconnects in order to ensure greater performance from AI algorithms. Even the most exciting advances, like ChatGpt, essentially come from adapting existing algorithms to more powerful hardware.

Thompson stresses, however, that we shouldn't expect more GPUs behind the same algorithms to be able to solve every problem. The greatest advances of the future may depend on the creation of different types of algorithms and chips capable of guaranteeing greater performance.

The report is a good reminder of how difficult it is to measure the competition between the United States and China and to how the hype around AI can be misleading.

For years, claims about China's advantage in artificial intelligence and other technology areas have been based on the number of patents filed or research papers published . But some Chinese entrepreneurs and engineers see ChatGpt's rise as an abrupt return to reality for an industry that prioritizes short-term profits over investment in new ideas and research. The country's professionals also fear that government measures to limit the power of China's biggest tech companies could discourage innovation.

But as the new report shows, on the fundamentals behind the great discoveries China could be closer to the US than it seems judging by the current hype around ChatGpt.

This article is from the Fast Forward newsletter, edited by Will Knight for US.

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