China: Quantum Computing and Digital Morality

Because one can hardly accuse Western reporting on China of being unbiased, I wanted to see the situation for myself. I was particularly interested in quantum technology, artificial intelligence and surveillance.

The automation of morality

Reporting on China in the Western world is rarely positive. For every Chinese citizen, for example, there would be a points account, the so-called social credit system.

Speeding on China's motorway results in a point deduction on the social account. In Germany, the opposite applies: in Flensburg, one point is added.

Those who always return their books to the library on time or help out at the old people's home collect plus points. Those who save up points in time can race later.

With our laws, it's all about not getting caught. Morality, on the other hand, is a more comprehensive set of rules for doing well when no one is watching. Morality is a social algorithm. China has found a way to digitise morality.

The local Chinese are happy. When digital surveillance reduces crime in their own neighbourhoods, the value of their condominium increases.

The misconception that China will overtake the West in innovation comes from the linear notion that growth from nowhere just goes on. Innovation is always the deviation from the norm, from laws and morals.

Innovation is always abnormal. Social rating makes deviation a risk. Surveillance is the innovation killer. Do we still have anything to fear from China?

Meritocracy instead of democracy

During lunch while visiting a research institute, I had the opportunity to talk to the interim director of the institute. His predecessor had been appointed deputy minister in the Ministry of Economy. Of course, I wanted to know if he now wanted to become the permanent head of the institute. His answer was no. He would rather remain a researcher, but it would probably be unavoidable. The function of a minister, regional party leader or even institute director is not determined by a democratic election - but better.

According to the centuries-old principle of Chinese meritocracy, subordinates, colleagues and superiors are consulted for job appointments. From their evaluation, the best person for the job is determined - whether he or she wants it or not.

At the morning conference, everyone had congratulated the former head of the institute on his promotion to deputy minister. Although he too would have preferred to remain in his position, as our interlocutor indicated to us. But because the honour was so great for the Institute, the family, the person and the party, he could not refuse.

Democratic tradition, as in Europe, arises quite originally only where tax collectors cannot accurately estimate yields due to uncertain climatic conditions, as in the mountainous regions of Athens, Iceland or Tyrol.

Democracy, i.e. the cooperation of taxpayers, was not necessary in the Yangtze Delta because of the stable weather. Continuous taxation with the help of the first information technology - writing - for the purpose of bookkeeping gave rise to autocratic advanced civilisations from the very beginning.

The three types of freedom

Later we learned that there are three levels of freedom in China.

Starbucks Freedom is the freedom to decide what coffee you drink. Mercedes Freedom is the freedom to decide which car you drive. The highest freedom is the freedom to say no.

You have to know that most of the big sedans from German manufacturers are on Chinese roads. The only thing greater is the freedom to say no. And almost no one has that.

As a native Chinese after studying in the US, you have a choice: either freedom in the US or a huge salary in China. The drivers of innovation in China are returnees from the West as executives in China's tech industry. If they are not careful, they will simply disappear.

China's surveillance technology

At Tian'anmen Square, I was able to see the surveillance technology for myself. Have you already discovered the camera?

China is a surveillance state. Only London has more cameras than Beijing.

Running a red light is not only a punishable offence in Germany, but also in China. Unfortunately, I did not manage to get a ticket for this in China. The fine is deducted from your mobile phone account immediately after the offence. Unfortunately, this form of punishment, which in my view is extremely practical, has not yet become established in Europe.

Surveillance does not always have to be convenient.

Environmental protection made in China

Of course, China's CO2 emissions per capita are negligible compared to Europe or the USA. The sheer mass of the population makes it both the problem and the solution. In the south, public buildings are not heated. No problem for us, we had the anorak with us. And together with the many Chinese citizens, it slowly got warm in the room. After all, the heating capacity per person is 80 to 90 watts.

The traffic light turns green: the impression is incredible when this throng of mopeds starts moving at the same time: Almost noiseless! All electric.

China has replaced the one-child policy with property prices.

It is said that the rent of an average flat in Beijing costs $3,000 a month. A kindergarten place in Shanghai is said to cost about $30,000 a year. One wonders what academic degree the children will get there or what else is being done.

Although China has long since abandoned the one-child policy, the birth rate per parent is 1.7 and not above the 2.1 needed to stabilise the population. China is shrinking because it simply can no longer afford to have children. In the medium term, China will need its labour force to maintain its internal infrastructure.

Artificial intelligence helps to gain a medical edge

During our visit to the company SenseTime, we gained a deep insight into the state of development of artificial intelligence in China. With AI, it is not only the algorithm that counts, but also the data to train it. SenseTime has the medical data of 600 million people. That is roughly the number of Chinese who have been exposed to digitalisation.

The social benefits and health advantages for each individual are enormous. With this treasure trove of data, China is preparing the change from industrial blanket medicine to digital individual medicine. This compares to a few 1,000, perhaps 10,000 data sets in Europe, as only a few people understand it as their civic duty to make their data available to the general public.

Lecture: Quantum Computing in Austria

My personal highlight of the stay was the opportunity to give a lecture on the state of quantum computing in Austria. In preparation, I had a detailed conversation with Thomas Monz from Alpine Quantum Technologies. Some Chinese colleagues had studied in Innsbruck and Vienna with Anton Zeilinger, among others, and also carried out cooperation projects afterwards. The exchange with these colleagues was extremely exciting.

Digitalisation vs. freedom

Even if radical digitalisation in China has many underestimated advantages, I would never give up my European freedoms for it. I would rather accept insecurity here in Europe than the automation of morality in China.

Do the Chinese not have the right to their own way, which they consequently deny to the Uyghurs and Tibetans in an inhuman way?

No one has yet been able to explain to me the difference in principle between the treatment of Catalans and Tibetans by their respective nation-states.

The fathers of the Enlightenment borrowed the idea of the nation state from China. Including the devaluation of minorities and foreigners, which unfortunately is still far from history in Europe. That's just the way nation states are. Karl Popper predicted long ago that "the nation state in an open society is merely a momentary evil that can be overcome in the long run".

Such a dear surveillance camera

Our Western moralising-chauvinistic feelings of superiority towards the Chinese giant are, in my view, rather misplaced. We often abuse justified criticism in order not to have to think about ourselves. This does not make us credible vis-à-vis China.

You can find more information about the trip in the press release of the Austrian Chamber of Commerce.

#36 "China as a digitalisation project" with Anastassia Lauterbach, Leadership Coach, The ExCo Group

In order to make the leap from developing country to high-tech state, China is giving everything. Through large investments, the country has transformed itself into a huge digitalisation project. Even if its innovative power cannot compete with the European entrepreneurial spirit, China is ahead of the game. I talk to Anastassia Lauterbach about the different digitalisation progress of China, Taiwan, the USA and Europe.

October 5, 2021

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