China pins its hopes on beating US in race for bio-intelligence supremacy

  • Beijing invests heavily in the hope that AI combined with genomics will give it a vital edge over America
  • Technology could give rise to massive shift in global power and pave the way for forms of ‘cyber-colonisation’
PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 November, 2018, 11:32am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2018, 1:49pm

China is fast becoming the next AI-DNA powerhouse, threatening Silicon Valley’s long-standing global edge on “bio-intelligence”.

As other countries line up behind these two giants, the resulting rival techno-blocs herald the dawn of a new world order.

These new geopolitical dynamics will not be shaped by trade wars, but by more open rivalry over who controls artificial intelligence and biotech.

The arrival of this order has already begun. China has invested US$9 billion in expanding its AI and biotech capabilities inland and beyond its borders – an enormous boost to its ability to commodify biological and genomic data.

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In his latest book, AI Superpowers, technology executive Kai-Fu Lee depicts a near future where China’s global leadership emerges at the convergence of AI and genomics.

Equipped with AI programs that can decode the genetic profiles of entire populations and ecosystems, forms of “cyber-colonisation” are increasingly likely, and have the potential to facilitate massive shifts in geopolitical power.

In fact, China and Silicon Valley seemed poised on the verge of a “cyber race” to see who will control our biological data, which is now functioning like a form of fuel for economic, medical and security supremacy across the globe.

China’s internet of genomes

AI is increasingly used to map and measure our biological functions. Most corporate AI platforms already have access to our online behaviour, relationships, health and emotional states – but, increasingly, they will acquire baseline information about our vital signs, organs and genomes.

Our mobile phones can analyse shifting speech patterns to diagnose Parkinson’s disease.

A company in China relies on wireless sensors to analyse workers’ brain waves and monitor their emotional health. IBM Frontiers Institute is developing intelligent implants and nanobots to perform exploratory imagery and report on blood-sugar levels inside the body.

This new business is lucrative, as it helps develop targeted products.

But it also allows companies to understand our deeply private behaviours and core genetic traits.

Competition over what I call “bio-intelligence” is the reason why Silicon Valley and China are engaged in a race.

 

China already surpasses the US in large scale, low-cost gene-sequencing. The world’s largest genetic research centre, the Beijing Genomics Institute based in Shenzhen, holds an estimated 40 million people’s DNA samples.

Called the “Gene Factory”, BGI’s campus hosts armies of students, who run several massive projects to “sequence the world”. They are on a quest to map the DNA of all known plants and animal species on Earth.

By providing its sequencing services to health and biotech groups in more than 60 countries, BGI is making a winning bet on the future: reading our genes, on a global scale, to crack illness, famine, evolution – and the secrets of human intelligence.

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A sharp blow in the competition between Silicon Valley and China happened in 2013 when BGI bought Complete Genomics, in Mountain View, California, with the intent to build its own advanced genomic sequencing machines, thereby acquiring tech mainly mastered by American producers.

China excels at the game of capturing markets and new data sets. The company, WuXi NextCODE, which was an early investor in 23&Me – the popular direct-to-consumer genetic testing company – now has a foot in the US and in China, with an extensive library of genomes from both continents. WuXi NextCODE is one of the largest genomic data platforms using machine-learning to better diagnose rare diseases and cancer as well as design tailored, improved therapeutics.

AI Nationalism

China has a significant political advantage that leads to data and algorithmic dominance. Under a form of “AI Nationalism”, the state sponsors a hypercompetitive business landscape, which allows for a coordinated, long-term strategy of research and investment.

There are, of course, thriving AI and biotech platforms in Silicon Valley. Google and Amazon keep capitalising on their powerful cloud platforms required for leading the largest genomics studies conducted in the US and abroad.

The personal genome service 23&Me sits on a trove of more than 5 million customers from across the globe who have shared their genetics and physiological data.

About US$13 billion of Facebook shares have recently been invested in the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, which pursues the ambition to develop a “human cells’ atlas” to cure, prevent and manage all diseases in our children’s lifetime.

 

Yet, Silicon Valley sorely lacks a coordinated global strategy on AI and emerging digital technologies. While the Trump administration has stripped down the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Chinese government has outlined a “military-civilian integration development strategy” to harness AI and biotech to enhance Chinese national power.

To build a world-beating AI and biotech industry, China has acquired huge data sets, as well as tech and human capital while putting massive resources into developing its own strategic technology sectors in close collaboration with national champion companies like Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba, which owns the South China Morning Post.

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Beijing has also kept Silicon Valley giants out of the Chinese market for years. In 2017, the new Cybersecurity Law went a step further requiring “network operators”, including foreign companies, to store data on servers within China while allowing government officials access to it.

In the first half of 2018, Chinese private equity and venture capital funds invested US$5.1 billion in the US AI and biotech sectors, surpassing the US$4 billion invested in all of 2017.

The aim is to gain even more technological and human capital.

As explained by Kai-Fu Lee, today’s ambitions also focus on penetrating and commodifying the data of markets in Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

Cyber-colonisation

Control of bio-intelligence means far more than just mapping: whoever gains a monopoly of these powerful resources may well be able to influence the well-being of entire populations and innovation in allied countries.

In economics and medicine, the implications are massive. Capacities in AI and biotech will allow tech-dominant countries to quietly capture, or “hack”, the value of another country’s bio-economy – its genomes, microbiomes and ecosystems – for their own economic growth.

Inequality between countries that are tech leaders and those that are tech takers will rise if this new form of “cyber-colonisation” happens without transfer of skills and financial benefit sharing.

The consulting firm Frost & Sullivan predicts AI technologies will generate US$6.7 billion in global revenue from health care by 2021, compared with US$633.8 million in 2014.

For instance, liquid biopsies – blood tests to diagnose cancer – are predicted to become the next commercial gold rush in health care.

By 2025, between 100 million and 2 billion human genomes could be sequenced – an effort that will exceed the computing challenges of running YouTube and Twitter.

 

Never before has our species been equipped to acquire and monitor data about human behaviour, physiology and ecosystems on such a grand scale. Such capacities will raise ambitions not only to monetise, but even to weaponise, ever more bio-intelligence.

Indeed, AI and biotech research are inherently dual use, and therefore a strategic advantage in a nation’s security arsenal.

This knowledge will lead to increasing developments at the forefront of medical countermeasures, including vaccines, antibiotics and targeted treatments relying on virus engineering and microbiome research.

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Algorithms are becoming a crucial tool in biosecurity to detect potential threats from known and unknown DNA sequences.

Applying AI deep learning to genomics data sets could also help geneticists learn how to use genome editing to “optimise” human health, with potential applications in military enhancements.

With its expanding, global networks of data, and the integration of its civilian and military industries, China is pledging to achieve dominance in bio-intelligence.

The question is whether other countries will open their eyes to this and try to gain a competitive edge.

Eleonore Pauwels is a research fellow on emerging cybertechnologies focusing on artificial intelligence at the Centre for Policy Research at United Nations University.