China should copy America’s DARPA to create cutting-edge technology – for military and civilian use, says top scientist

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 March, 2016, 4:36pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 June, 2017, 12:53pm

China should create a government agency to make greater use of the civilian sector in defence-related research, the nation’s leading quantum physicist said.

Professor Pan Jianwei said the United States’ Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) was a good model of how to ­pursue innovative research that could have applications for the military.

Pan, executive vice-president of the University of Science and Technology of China, was speaking at a press conference on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress in Beijing yesterday.

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Famous innovations to come out of Darpa’s research include breakthroughs used to create the internet, global positioning ­systems and voice-recognition technology.

Pan said the US agency, which often partners civilian contractors, encouraged genuinely innovative research and China should follow its lead.

Darpa “came up with wonderful questions” and opened bidding on its projects “to the whole world”, Pan said. “Whoever you are, you can do it if you have a good solution,” he said.

“Continuing down the path, [the technology] can be used in the military or civilian sectors. The knowledge is open.”

The government announced last week that defence spending would increase by 7 to 8 per cent this year as China modernises its armed forces.

The spending comes as Beijing is becoming more assertive in its territorial claims in the East and South China Seas.

China spent more than 1.4 trillion yuan (HK$1.67 trillion) on research and development last year with about 77 per cent of the money coming from state-owned or private companies, Minister of Science and Technology Wan Gang told the press conference. Some Chinese private companies’ investment in the development of technology had been intensive, he said.

Mobile phone maker Huawei spent 50 billion yuan on research and development last year, which was more than the budget of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, China’s largest government research organisation, the conference heard.

Wan said the government was trying to improve communication between researchers in the military and civilian sectors.

General information on ­Darpa-funded projects and its civilian contractors can be freely accessed on its website.

In comparison, nearly all military research projects in China are shrouded in secrecy and scientists involved are strictly forbidden to talk about them in public.

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“Civilian-military integration currently has some problems, such as inadequate coordination and communication,” Wan said.

The leaders of the Communist Party and the State Council took the problems seriously and were rolling out a series of measures to address them, he said.

“We will start from strategic

hi-tech level [research], such as aerospace, deep sea, supercomputers, quantum communications and information technology,” Wan said.

Many private companies were involved in defence equipment research and procurement, he said.

Pan said internet giant Alibaba had invested in a joint laboratory with his team to develop a quantum computer and was developing an artificial intelligence

machine similar to Google’s AlphaGo, which beat a grandmaster at Go this week.