In battle with U.S., China to focus on 7 ‘frontier’ technologies from chips to brain-computer fusion


GUANGZHOU, China — 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.

In its five-year development plan, the 14th of its kind, Beijing said it would make “science and technology self-reliance and self-improvement a strategic pillar for national development,” according to a CNBC translation.

Premier Li Keqiang said on Friday 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.

China’s technology champions such as Huawei and SMIC have been targeted by U.S. sanctions as tensions between Beijing and Washington have ramped up in the past few years.

As such, China has concentrated on boosting its domestic expertise in areas it sees as strategically important, such as semiconductors. And now it has laid out seven “frontier technologies” that it will prioritize not just for the next five years, but beyond too.

1) Artificial intelligence (AI)

China plans to focus on specialized chip development for AI applications and developing so-called open source algorithms. Open source technology is usually developed by one entity and licensed by other companies.

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. The program “learns” as it is fed more data.

AI has been a key field for Chinese companies and the central government over the last few years. Major companies such as Alibaba and Baidu have been investing in the technology.

China and the U.S. are competing for AI dominance. 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

This is category of technology involves quantum computing. This is a totally different concept from the computers we use today and holds the promise of being able to aid in ambitious feats such as the creation of new medicine.

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 but the country has struggled to catch up to the U.S., Taiwan and South Korea.

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.

Since China doesn’t have the companies that can design and make the tools that its chip manufacturers require, it relies on companies from other countries. This is something China wants to change.

In its five-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. The five-year plan did not elaborate on what that could look like.

China laid out seven “frontier” technologies in its 14th Five Year Plan. These are areas that China will focus research on and include semiconductors and brain-computer fusion.
Yuichiro Chino | Moment | Getty Images

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.

China says it will also be looking at key technologies in the prevention and treatment of major transmissible diseases.

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.


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