From nuclear fusion to human gene splicing: five Chinese tech innovations that could have a negative impact
- Recent tech breakthroughs include AI news anchors and smart ID cards to control social behaviour
- Some innovations such as bike sharing have had a huge negative impact on the environment
China has been coming up with some headline-grabbing innovations of late that promise to move the world forward. But not all are without drawbacks: here are five that might just set back human advancement if not thoroughly researched and investigated.
This week Chinese scientists announced successful tests in their bid to create an “artificial sun” through experimental nuclear fusion technology. According to Chinese state media, the fusion reactor reached temperatures of 100 million degrees Celsius – which is about seven times hotter than the interior of the sun.
The creation of energy through nuclear fusion is widely regarded as the holy grail of free energy. It is seen as a “clean” energy since it produces no greenhouse gas emissions. It is considered safer than conventional nuclear fission reactors since there is no risk of nuclear meltdown, and the fuel it uses is found in abundant quantities in seawater.
However, there are still numerous drawbacks to consider.
Daniel Jassby, the principal research physicist at the Princeton Plasma Physics lab until 1999, wrote about the potential pitfalls of such technology in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists last year.
Jassby said that if fusion reactors were feasible, scientists would have to deal with serious problems similar to those of existing fission reactors, such as high operating costs and cooling demands.
Moreover, there would be “radiation damage to structures; radioactive waste; the need for biological shielding; and the potential for the production of weapons-grade plutonium 239 – thus adding to the threat of nuclear weapons proliferation, not lessening it, as fusion proponents would have it.”
Human genome editing
Chinese scientists opened the mother of all cans of worms in 2015 by being the first in the world to modify the genes of human embryos.
After three years of scientific advancements and debates on the ethical implications of such a development, scientists in China are still pushing the boundaries on what the technology can do. Earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal reported that the cutting-edge technique has been used on at least 86 cancer and HIV patients in the past three years as a result of relaxing regulations on the use of the tool.
The gene-editing technique, named CRISPR-Cas9, is unlike any other similar technique because of its relative ease of use, cheapness and effectiveness. While some experts say that the use of such techniques has a bright future – if applied to eradicate hereditary diseases like blood disorders, muscular dystrophy, Huntington's or even cancer – others believe it could be used for less idealistic purposes.
To address these issues, the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing takes place at the end of this month in Hong Kong, where scientists plan to discuss the ethical and social issues brought up by human genetic modification.
For example, vaccines are mandatory in some countries and voluntary in others as part of countries' public health systems. Would advancements in gene editing tools create an environment where genetic modifications could be seen in the same light?
Fake news anchors
Last week, Chinese state news agency Xinhua unveiled the world's first artificial intelligence news anchor, giving hope to human journalists tired of reading mechanically off teleprompters.
Xinhua said the new addition to its team can work 24 hours a day across a variety of its platforms, “reducing news production costs and improving efficiency”. The English-speaking anchor said that it would “work tirelessly to keep you informed as texts will be typed into my system uninterrupted”.
The showcase of technology reflects China's ambitions to become an AI superpower by 2030, and its advancements in various AI related sectors.
Nonetheless, one has to wonder what would happen if the technology becomes so advanced that people can't distinguish between real or AI journalists?
China's bike sharing industry was originally touted as an innovative solution to the “last mile” problem in transport. What better way to share resources and reduce the environmental impact of combustion vehicles than to use the ubiquitous eye-catching bikes scattered conveniently throughout cities in China?
But the economic gears switched as more companies jumped on the bandwagon seeking investor money and a share of the new market. The first company to roll off the cliff was Xiaoming, which dumped 430,000 bikes throughout more than 10 cities in China. Enormous mounds of discarded and broken bicycles then started piling up all around the country as more of the companies went bankrupt.
Now thousands of the bikes are being rounded up to be turned into scrap metal – a grim reminder of the negative environmental impact of economies of scale.
Social credit systems
China’s plans to enforce harmony on its population of 1.38 billion people has generally been received with trepidation outside the country. Until now.
This week, Reuters reported that Chinese telecoms giant ZTE is helping Venezuela to create a similar system to monitor its citizens via a new identification card system suggestively named the “Fatherland Card”.
This is the first real example of analysts’ concerns that China's use of the controversial social credit system would spread to other countries. Although the system is still under development, China plans to implement it nationwide by 2020.
In October the former owner of the Italian soccer club AC Milan, Li Yonghong, was put on a blacklist for defaulting on a loan, and was subsequently forbidden to leave China or indulge in high-expense activities including sending his children to expensive public schools.