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Navigating the digital silk route

September 24, 2018, 11:11 PM IST Economic Times 

By Deepakshi Rawat

China’s evolving relationship with emerging technologies was once again brought into the limelight following the conclusion of the 2018 World Artificial Intelligence (AI) Conference hosted in Shanghai. One of the key highlights of the conference was President Xi’s remarks through a congratulatory letter at the opening ceremony on 17September, where he said that China was willing to work with other countries to “promote development, jointly safeguard security and share results” in Artificial Intelligence technologies. Some observers have attributed his statements toa softening Chinese stance in the face of the US and European pushback against the “China Dream”(???) to achieve global dominance in AI. On the other hand some scholars saw it as an indication of China’s plan to promote Chinese technological projects and investments in other countriesalong the Belt and Road, bringing to the forefront a concept known as the Digital Silk Route.

Launched in 2013, China’s popular Belt and Road Initiative(BRI) is often understood through its land and maritime components, with the digital angle often being overlooked. However, a surge of Chinese technological projects and investments in countries along the BRI route is giving rise to the belief that Chinese ambitions go beyond constructing physical infrastructure and developing maritime connectivity into the digital domain to create a ‘Digital Silk Route’ as the third pillar of BRI. The Digital Silk Route focuses on promoting Chinese projects in new technologies such as Digital Payment systems and 5G.

In 2016, Chinese mobile payments totalled a staggering US$9 trillion. China now aims to expand its consumer base as is evident by the ever increasing presence of Chinese payment platforms abroad, especially in BRI markets. Last year Inspur, China’s largest server maker announced that it would partner with Cisco, IBM, Ericsson, and Diebold Nixdorf to provide fintech-related services in BRI countries. Although some countries have been blocking the entrance of Chinese payments into their financial system, the widespread use of these payment platforms piggybacking on Chinese tourists and trade might force such reluctant doors open. The extensive use of Chinese payment platforms globally will give China an abundance of data – a critical resource for AI development – leading to more sophisticated AI systems that may help China and its home grown BAT (Baidu, Alibaba & Tencent) and other local companies to lead the AI development race.

Furthermore, in the case of 5G, the three state-owned telecommunication companies, namely, China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom are planning to invest approximately $180 billion in creating 5G infrastructure over a seven year period. With 5G technology being the foundation for the successful execution of smart cities, internet of things, robotics, artificial intelligence systems and other such advanced technologies, China has understood the importance of being the front runner in the development and adoption of this technology. While it lost out in the 3G and 4G transitions, it is determined not to fall behind in the 5G race. China understands that the nascent nature of 5G technology is an opportunity to popularize the adoption of Chinese standards in this technology domain. For example, the Computer Network Information Centre and China Unicom have recently established the “5G Technology Joint Lab” to strengthen the cooperation between the two parties in the field of 5G technology. Not only will they cooperate in areas such as edge computing, network slicing, Internet of Things, and industrial Internet, but they will also aim to jointly push for relevant standards and promote the industrialization and standardization of key technologies.

There is no doubt that projects under the Digital Silk Road will help enhance digital connectedness of under-served Asian and African countries. However it is also crucial that We understand the security and privacy implications of adopting such technologies while the global standards and norms governing these technologies are yet to fully mature. There are already several disturbing reports of these technologies being used to influence and control public opinion by interfering with civil societies, government agencies and media. The efforts at promoting the concept of “Internet sovereignty” which allows the State to control what citizens can read and publish online are troubling. Equally problematic are the efforts of various national governments to directforeign firms that are acquiring the data of their nationals to store such sensitive and private information on servers located within their national borders. The governments are also seeking unlimited access to such data on the pretext of ‘national security’. The IT companies and civil societies are resisting such efforts as there are genuine concerns that governments may misuse such data. It is ironical that the IT companies, while criticising governments, have themselves been irresponsible in handling such data, as was evident in the recent Facebook incident.

In light of the increasing dependence of society on technology, from online payments to the advent of smart cities via 5G technology, a push in establishing international standards for data security is the need of the hour. Technology is the new frontier to be conquered and without proper monitoring and equitable dissemination of information, the results could be unfavourable and the implications, far-reaching.

(Deepakshi Rawat is an independent technology writer and has a Bachelor’s degree in computer science from National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan and a Masters in Chinese from Jawaharlal Nehru University)


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