2019 China science look-ahead: from moon landing to an AI arms race, four things to expect in the year ahead
- The Chang’e-4 lunar module is poised to land on the dark side of the moon, and China’s giant space telescope will formally begin operating this year
- The country is likely to step up efforts to develop its AI capabilities, but on another front – human genetic modification – new regulations may slow adoption
Chinese science advanced on several fronts in 2018, and this year should see scientists in China reach a number of milestones that will focus the world’s attention on their achievements.
Here are a few to keep an eye on.
1. Dark side of the moon
In December, China launched a plan to become the first country to land a probe on the far side of the moon.
The Chinese mission, named Chang’e-4, is the fourth robotic iteration in a decade-long endeavour by the country to explore the moon. Chang’e is a reference to the Chinese goddess of the moon.
The mission is expected to touch down on the never-before seen area of the moon in early January, according to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Group.
If successful, it would set the stage for further scientific endeavours, including gaining a better understanding the history and process of planetary evolution.
The next Chang’e mission will seek to bring back samples from the moon. China plans eventually to land astronauts on the moon in the 2030s.
2. Cosmic signals
The world’s largest telescope – the Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST) in China’s Guizhou province – is set to become formally operational and open to researchers from September 2019.
According to China Daily, since its trial inauguration in 2016, FAST has already spotted 44 new pulsars – dense stars which spin rapidly and emit electromagnetic radiation at regular intervals.
FAST chief scientist Nan Rendong told science journal Nature that the project will be used to help detect molecules in space that could suggest extraterrestrial life, as well as potential communication signals from other parts of space.
Astronomers from all over the globe are interested in FAST, which is billed as the world’s most sensitive telescope, because it can be used to help detect gravitational waves, black holes and more.
3. Genetic regulation
Chinese scientist He Jiankui’s announcement of the birth of twins who were the first humans to be genetically modified caused alarm all over the world among scientists, ethicists and the general public.
He dropped the news just before the start of the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, in Hong Kong, in November.
In response, just last week, China’s Ministry of Education asked for the country’s universities and hospitals to review their use of the genetic modification technology.
The ministry is looking for those institutions involved in gene-editing projects to inspect the ethics of their work ethics and the approval processes of their ethics committees.
China has worked on several projects using the CRISPR-Cas9 genetic modification technology (CRISPR is short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) in the past.
Nonetheless, news of its use on human embryos that then become fetuses and are borne to full term by the mother is likely to trigger calls for official guidelines or laws regarding CRISPR-Cas9’s use in the country in 2019.
This technology is known to be relatively easy to use, cheap, and effective, and its use is likely to become more widespread in the scientific community, highlighting the need for government oversight.
4. AI arms race
The hype of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning was ubiquitous in 2018 as developments in those fields expanded. It is likely that China will continue making headlines in 2019 with its use of these technologies as it pushes to become the global leader in AI by 2030.
The Chinese government plans to boost the country’s AI capabilities to oust the United States from its position as leader in the field in an industry set to be worth US$150 billion by 2030.
Money is pouring into companies in China researching AI capabilities. Last year, 48 per cent of total equity funding for related start-ups in the world came from China, 10 per cent more than came from the US.
To put that into perspective, in 2016 China held a mere 11.3 per cent of global funding in that field.
Countries like the US are unlikely to sit quietly while the Chinese government funnels money and coordinates human resources to accomplish its goals as quickly as possible. Expect more developments on this front as the two countries collide on the geopolitical stage.