A New Type of Cold War
Competition is not a word people use often when talking about technological advancements, but this doesn’t mean that there are no rivalries in the world of high tech. On the contrary, in fact: even though on a smaller and possibly more admirable scale, there’s still a Cold War going on out there. Both the East and the West are doing all that they can to be the first to make a major breakthrough (remember the Space Race?) or build a faster, more efficient or more advanced version of some of the technological tools we already have at our disposal. Theatrical, true, but, after all, the most interesting things always take place behind the scenes.
When it comes to the Western world, countries tend to be more transparent, so, if you are reading your everyday news, the chances are you already know what they have done and what they are currently up to. The East is different. It has always been. China especially. A country of contradictions, the world’s second largest economy never fails to both amaze and terrify.
Did you know, for example, that China’s market is considered to be the world’s most dynamic start-up scene nowadays? That’s the good news. On the not-so-bright side: the aggressive market expansion strategies enforced by “the three kingdoms” of China’s Internet world (Baidu, Alibaba, Holding) has resulted in concentration of almost all technological power under the hood of few large companies. It’s state capitalism there, after all.
We’ll leave the problems aside for now and focus on the good parts. And they are really good. In fact, some of China’s innovations are already changing our world. Learn how here first.
1) Quantum Key Distribution Network
It’s no secret that with the emergence of high-speed, powerful computers, the dark side of the Internet (the one belonging to the hackers almost exclusively) gained a significant advantage as well. During the last ten years the situation was getting gradually worse, and currently it seems to have reached its absolute peak.
“The amount of fraud that is taking place now is probably in epidemic proportions,” says Tom Winsor, the Chief Inspector of Constabulary for England and Wales. “The police are having to work very, very hard to keep up with even the ones they know about”.
Sticking to our traditional tools, apparently, is not enough. Does this mean that the days of safe internet are a bygone time? Or is there still a chance to make the Internet at least as secure as a decade ago?
Don’t worry: we’re on the right track to make it even safer. China has the answer. It’s called quantum key distribution network. Or QKDN, for short.
Many authors have tried explaining the mechanics of quantum encryption, but few of them have explored the security benefits in-depth. So, how does quantum encryption contribute to building a more secure network? Well, the main advantage of a quantum network as opposed to a regular one, is that if someone tries to violate the process of key distribution, it quickly gets noticed as any observation inevitably involves changes.
Such system is possible due to a physical phenomenon called quantum entanglement, which occurs when the quantum state of a single particle in a group of particles (usually two photons) cannot be described independently from the other particles, i.e. the group of particles behaves as if they are one particle, even if each particle is at a different location, separated by a large distance from the other particles. Using this phenomenon, a communication network is guaranteed to be immune to attacks, since a system can be constructed which, by design, will abort a communication if the level of eavesdropping is above a certain threshold.
In June 2017, China announced a real breakthrough in the field. Namely, Chinese researchers (Chinese Academy of Sciences) successfully managed to distribute photons (in the state of quantum entanglement) between three base stations at a distance of 1200km.
It’s a major achievement. It opens up an entirely new perspective on what is possible. Secure communication is a prerequisite for a more beautiful future, and has been already explored in one way or another; but, QKDN may be the real deal – it may be the technology which will bring humanity closer to a world communicating without “cables, signals or code”.
As a matter of fact, researchers from Canada, USA, and Europe are already actively proposing ideas and experimenting with quantum experiments on either side of the Ocean. However, reconciling the theory of general relativity and gravity with quantum mechanics is still one of the most difficult problems in physics.
Supercomputing is, rightfully so, one of the most exciting fields today. The most powerful supercomputers operate at the speed of quadrillion (PETA) floating points per second (FLOPS)! And the most powerful among them – are Chinese.
For almost half a decade, a Chinese supercomputer has topped the list of fastest computers in the world. However, unlike the previous owner of this coveted spot, Tianhe-2 which was built on US chips, Sunway TaihuLight, the current most powerful supercomputer in the world, is built entirely with domestic technology, including Sunway’s specialist multi-core manycore microprocessors. Sunway TaihuLIght, in fact, was born out of rivalry: when the US government banned the export of Intel’s CPUs to China as a response to China’s intent to double Tianhe-2’s computing capacities, China produced its very own supercomputer. And it was a marvel from the outset.
Unlike US computers built mostly around a central processing unit, Chinese supercomputers employ a somewhat different architecture, linking thousands of chips together with the help of servers. These are highly useful for performing complex calculations in scientific researches, as well as simulations for nuclear, ecological, and civilian purposes.
“High-performance computing is recognized as a powerful engine for growth and the key to China’s competitiveness in science and technology,” comments Fu Haohuan, Associate Professor of Tsinghua University in Beijing.
And there’s more from where that came from. Just a year after completing the fastest supercomputer, China is already building a super-supercomputer, the first exascale computer, in fact, i.e. one theoretically capable of performing quintillion (billion billion) calculations per second (hence: exaFLOPS). The computer should be unveiled to the public by the end of 2017.
3) Advanced Power Technologies
For most of the world, the future of power consumption means building infrastructure for alternative energy sources. They are safer, eco-friendly, proven to work and more efficient in the long run. China, however, is doing something much more difficult. Instead of following this secure path, it has started investing into making coal mining more efficient. In fact, China is currently building more coal plants and consuming more coal power than any other country in the world or history.
In addition to being the more practical (albeit, less safer) solution for a country with a developed coal mining infrastructure, there is, fortunately, something that has incited China to explore it – our newfound ability to push the boundaries of energy efficiency. During the past few years, China has invested a lot in the development of new technologies capable of making generation and transmission of thermal power more environmentally friendly and efficient. The results are visible even now: China’s new coal-fired plants are already working at higher temperatures and pressure (approaching “the limits of metallurgy”), which results in reducing emission and significantly increasing thermal efficiencies when compared to the more traditional plants. So much so that China’s coal industry is expected to soon be more efficient than America’s.
The global efficiency rate of coal power plants is 33%, with the efficiency boundaries registered usually at about 40%. And while US plants average an efficiency rate of about 35%, China has promised to reach an efficiency average of 48 percent. Since this requires temperatures and pressure in the sphere of the life-threatening, China has started relocating plants from the population centres to the rural areas. It has also reviewed and updated the protection policies.
China has turned into an exciting scene for dizzying innovations – from high-security quantum networks through the fastest supercomputers in the world to advanced and efficient coal-fired plants. As many times throughout history, China is once again demonstrating that it may be a big mistake to underestimate its power and creative potential. On the contrary: it should serve as a valuable source of inspiration and insight.
 The Chinese have since topped this breakthrough with two more: first, Reuters relayed the news from the official Chinese Xinhua news agency that China set up “the first commercial quantum network for secure communications” in its northern province of Shandong, and just half a month later it was announced that the Chinese and Austrian Academies of Sciences successfully conducted the first ever quantum cryptographically secured video call on 29 September 2017 between Vienna and Beijing. (October 2017)