Behind Beijing’s plan to shape future technology

Behind Beijing's plan to shape future technology

Behind Beijing’s plan to shape future technology

China’s President Xi Jinping raises his glass and proposes a toast at the end of his speech during the welcome banquet for leaders attending the Belt and Road Forum at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on April 26, 2019.

Nicholas Asfouri | AFP | Getty Images

China is set to release an ambitious 15-year blueprint that will lay out its plans to set the global standards for the next-generation of technologies.

The move could have wide-ranging implications for the power Beijing wields on the global stage in areas from artificial intelligence, to telecommunications networks and the flow of data, experts told CNBC.

“China Standards 2035” is set to be released this year after two years of planning. Experts said it is widely seen as the next step, following the “Made In China 2025” global manufacturing plan — but this time, with a much larger focus on technologies that are seen as defining the next decade.

“The diagnosis is, we are entering an era that will be defined by new technological systems and networks and technologies and the leaders in those are yet to be determined and this gives China the opportunity to determine that,” Emily de La Bruyere, co-founder of consultancy Horizon Advisory, told CNBC in an interview.

“That means power in the world is up for grabs.” 

What are standards?

Technologies and industries around the world have standards that define how they work and their interoperability around the world. Interoperability refers to the ability for two or more systems to work together.

The telecommunications industry is a good example. New networks such as 5G aren’t just turned on. They take years of planning and development. Technical standards are created through collaboration between industry bodies, experts and companies.

Those technical specifications are adopted and integrated into what becomes known as standards. That ensures that standards are as uniform as possible, which can improve the efficiency of network rollouts and ensure they work no matter where you are in the world.

Technical standards is not a topic that is simply abstruse but a concrete way to shape the playing field and landscape for the future of these technologies.

Elsa Kania

Center for a New American Security (CNAS)

Standards are behind many of the technologies we use every day, such as our smartphones. 

Major American and European technology companies, such as Qualcomm and Ericsson, have been part of standards setting across various industries. But China has played an increasingly active role in the past few years. 

What do we know about the plan? 

In March, Beijing released a document which translates as “The Main Points of National Standardization Work in 2020.”

Bruyere and Horizon Advisory co-founder Nathan Picarsic said this gives us an insight into what might be found in the final blueprint for China Standards 2035, particularly when looking at Beijing’s plans internationally.

Some of the points in the plan from March include a push to improve standards domestically across various industries, from agriculture to manufacturing. But one section of the document highlights the need to establish a “new generation of information technology and biotechnology standard system.” 

Within that section, there is a focus on developing standards for the so-called Internet of Things, cloud computing, big data, 5G and artificial intelligence (AI). These are all seen a crucial future technologies that could underpin critical infrastructure in the world.

The document also outlines the need to “participate in the formulation of international standards” and that China should put forward more proposals for international standards.

One expert said the move is a dual play — to strengthen standards domestically and boost the economy, and to have influence globally. 

“China domestically is trying to up its standards game. One of the big weaknesses in the economy is the fact that nothing happens in a standard normalized way across time, distance and space. You have different requirements in this city, different requirements from day to day from month to month,” Andrew Polk, partner at Beijing-based research and consultancy firm Trivium China, told CNBC. 

“(China Standards 2035) is a combination of domestic exigencies and the need to improve their own economic performance and efficiency and their desire to set the standards, literally and figuratively, abroad.” 

As Beijing began researching for China Standards 2035, an official reportedly said it was the country’s opportunity to “surpass” the rest of the world. Dai Hong, director of the second department of industrial standards of China’s National Standardization Management Committee, was quoted by state-backed publication Xinhua as saying at that time that many of the patents and technical standards for next-generation technologies had not yet been formed.

China’s standards push

China Standards 2035 gives the country a new impetus but over the past few years, the influence of the world’s second-largest economy was already growing.

“5G is a prominent example in so far as, 5G is the case we have seen the most aggressive companies not just to set standards at home but to actively shape global standards setting,” Elsa Kania, adjunct senior fellow with the technology and national security program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), told CNBC. 

5G refers to next-generation mobile networks that are seen as critical in supporting future infrastructure.

Chinese firm Huawei, one of the leading players in 5G networking equipment, has also been a key player in standards setting. It has the highest number of patents related to 5G, and is ahead of its closest European rivals Nokia and Ericsson, according to intellectual property analysis firm IPlytics.

In addition, it has been a key part of forming the technical specifications for 5G via an industry body known as 3GPP. Also known as 3rd Generation Partnership Project, it brings together standards organizations that seek to develop global standards for cellular networks.

“Technical standards is not a topic that is simply abstruse but a concrete way to shape the playing field and landscape for the future of these technologies,” Kania said. “The decision made on standards can have commercial consequences while also shaping the architecture to the advantage or disadvantage of companies.”

China’s national standards push is already underway. Beijing has already formed a new committee focused on creating standards for blockchain technology. 

The world’s second-largest economy is looking to become a leader in the nascent space after President Xi Jinping last year urged the country to “seize the opportunities” presented by the technology. Some of China’s major technology companies including Huawei and Tencent are part of that committee. 

Belt and Road

Launched in 2013, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a massive infrastructure project that seeks to link more than 60 countries from Asia through to Africa and Europe in a complex network of roads, rails and ports.

But last year, Xi expanded the scope of the BRI to include technology. The BRI is also seen as one way China is able to spread its standards and influence.

The more technical and technology standards are defined by Beijing, the more associated data will become subject to the Chinese government’s various data localization and access policies.

Nathan Picarsic

co-founder, Horizon Advisory

“The PRC (People’s Republic of China) makes diplomatic agreements—such as memorandums of understanding— incorporating PRC technical standards extensively within the BRI realm as a major policy component of its action plans,” Ray Bowen, senior analyst at Pointe Bello, said in a written testimony last month to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. 

Adam Segal, director of the digital and cyberspace policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted in a testimony to the same committee that standards have been written into memorandums of understanding with a number of nations.

Developing economies such as Vietnam and Indonesia are likely to adopt those Chinese standards because “they are cheaper than Western alternatives and the draw of the Chinese market,” Segal said.

Data flows

As China’s influence on global technology grows, more and more questions about its access to data will emerge.

“China’s standards play overlaps with and intends to expand its strategy of asymmetrical access to data,” Horizon Advisory’s Picarsic said. “The more technical and technology standards are defined by Beijing, the more associated data will become subject to the Chinese government’s various data localization and access policies.” 

Some legislations in China appear to compel any company to comply with government requests for help with vaguely-defined “intelligence work.” 

This is one reason that the U.S. and other countries have raised concerns about Huawei. They feel that should Huawei be allowed in their 5G networks, data running through those pipes could be accessed by Beijing. Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei has repeatedly said that Huawei would never hand customer data over to the Chinese government. 

US approach

Standards are certainly on the agenda right now in Washington.

The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission is due to hold a hearing on Monday titled “A ‘China Model?’ Beijing’s Promotion of Alternative Global Norms and Standards.” It had to be postponed because of the coronavirus. 

But in general, there is no unified effort from the U.S. to this point. President Donald Trump has even proposed funding cuts to the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

“Standards, it’s probably the least sexy thing you can think about,” Trivium China’s Polk said. “And it takes sustained long term effort, attention and investment. That is why you worry about western governments being behind the ball on this and having the capacity to have as sustained focus (as China) on these issues.”

The coronavirus pandemic has also distracted governments from this issue. While China may be able to balance dealing with the fallout and their long-term focus on standards, it may not be as easy for the U.S.

“It seems like the Chinese are preparing themselves to try to walk and chew gum at the same time, in terms of addressing the short-term challenges and keeping their long-term goals in check. I don’t see the balancing of long-term and short-term objectives as much in the U.S.,” Polk said.

Challenges ahead

China may have big ambitions, but dislodging the dominance of the U.S. and Europe won’t be an easy task.

“While increased Chinese participation and government involvement has created some procedural challenges, it has not created undue influence or tipped the competitive scales in favor of the Chinese,” Naomi Wilson, senior director for policy in Asia at the Information Technology Industry (ITI) Council, said in a written testimony last month to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. 

“In fact, U.S. and multinational companies are still largely regarded as the most influential participants in ICT-related standards bodies — based on their technical leadership and expertise, deep understanding of standards processes and rules, quality of contributions, and consistent participation over time.”

The ITI represents over 70 global information and communications technology companies. 

China will also need to boost the quality of the companies contributing to global standards. The country will need to develop companies that are able to do what Huawei is doing, but in a variety of different technology sectors, according to Polk.

“These standards are set by industry bodies through companies that participate in them. Usually the companies want the best, the highest standards, and the best tech usually wins out. That is why the U.S. and Europe have the incumbent advantage. They have highly advanced companies,” Polk told CNBC.

“They (China) won’t be able to get away with dominating standards regimes in various areas with subpar technology. They have to have Huaweis in other areas.”

SpaceX’s internet service will go live in around six months

SpaceX’s internet service will go live in around six months

SpaceX founder Elon Musk says he expects the company’s satellites to be delivering internet connectivity in around six months.

A private beta of the service is expected in around three months. The public beta, in around six months, will start with high latitude satellites.

SpaceX first launched its operational high latitude satellites in May 2019. The high latitude means connectivity may be intermittent and speeds will be relatively slow.

Last year, the company was granted permission to launch up to 4,425 satellites at a lower altitude of between 1,110km to 1,325km. In April, the FCC gave approval for the altitude to be cut in half for 1,584 of those satellites.

“From providing high-speed broadband services in remote areas to offering global connectivity to the Internet of Things through ‘routers in space’ for data backhaul, I’m excited to see what services these proposed constellations have to offer,” FCC commissioner Ajit Pai said at the time.

SpaceX gave the following reasons for wanting to operate in a lower altitude:

  • Performance – SpaceX claims that operating closer to ground will reduce latency and boost capacity. Latency could be just 25ms, similar to current fibre broadband.
  • Reducing debris – SpaceX requested 1,584 of its latest satellites to be authorised for operation at 550 kilometres instead of the 1,110-1,325km of the others. Moving the satellites lower means they can get the same results with 16 fewer in orbit.

Expanding on the reducing debris reason for operating in lower orbit, SpaceX claims that – when the satellite is no longer operational – it’s more likely to be dragged towards the planet. Dead satellites will therefore burn up in the atmosphere rather than remain and increase the likelihood of collisions.

A NASA study (PDF) found that 99 percent of satellites will need to be taken out of orbit within five years of launch or the risk of satellite collisions goes up substantially.

SpaceX made a filing with the FCC last week requesting another license chance which would see further satellites launched to an even lower altitude, but slightly less overall (4,408 instead of 4,425).

Interested in hearing industry leaders discuss subjects like this? Attend the co-located 5G Expo, IoT Tech Expo, Blockchain Expo, AI & Big Data Expo, and Cyber Security & Cloud Expo World Series with upcoming events in Silicon Valley, London, and Amsterdam.

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Facebook gets rid of ‘pseudoscience’ ad-targeting category

Facebook gets rid of ‘pseudoscience’ ad-targeting category

Facebook Inc has removed “pseudoscience” as an option for advertisers that want to target audiences, a category available until this week even as the world’s largest social media network vowed to curb misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic.

The company has also paused the availability of some other interest categories while it evaluates its list, a Facebook spokeswoman confirmed in an email after Reuters found “conspiracy theory” was no longer an ad-targeting option.

The company eliminated the pseudoscience category from its “detailed targeting” list on Wednesday, the spokeswoman said by phone, after tech news site The Markup showed that it could advertise a post targeting people interested in pseudoscience.

The Markup demonstrated that Facebook was allowing such ads after saying it would police Covid-19 misinformation on its platform. More than 78 million Facebook users were interested in “pseudoscience”, it said, citing Facebook’s ad portal.

Misinformation about the pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus, from bogus cures to wide-ranging conspiracy theories, has also spread on rival social media platforms such Twitter Inc and YouTube, the video service of Alphabet Inc’s Google.

Advocacy group Avaaz reported last week that a sample of 104 coronavirus-related pieces of misinformation content on Facebook analyzed by the group had reached over 117 million estimated views.

Data gathered by ProPublica in 2016 shows that Facebook assigned “pseudoscience” to users at that time, suggesting the category has been available for several years.

The Facebook spokeswoman said in her email that the pseudoscience category should have been removed in a previous review.

“We will continue to review our interest categories,” she said.

Facebook has announced several initiatives to combat the spread of false Covid-19 claims, including removing content that could cause “imminent physical harm” and alerting people who have engaged with such misinformation, with a link to the World Health Organization website.

The company has also banned exploitative tactics in ads and banned ads for medical face masks, hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes and Covid-19 test kits.

However, a test by Consumer Reports in April showed Facebook approving ads containing coronavirus misinformation, including false claims that the virus was a hoax or that people could stay healthy through small daily doses of bleach.

Facebook reaches 2.5 billion users monthly on its core platform, or 2.9 billion including those on its apps such as Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger. – Reuters

Covid-19: How tech’s empty offices helped San Francisco bend the curve

Covid-19: How tech’s empty offices helped San Francisco bend the curve

With the exception of outdoor exercise and quick, furtive dashes to the corner grocery store, swathes of Northern California have now been sheltering in place for more than a month.

The San Francisco Bay Area’s stay-at-home order was announced March 16, and that swift decision-the first in the nation-is now widely credited with #BendingtheCurve, buying the US health care system time and saving lives.

In truth, though, the Bay Area was bending the curve roughly 10 days before then, thanks to the early action of the region’s biggest employers. Apple Inc encouraged its Silicon Valley employees to work from home on March 6. Salesforce.com Inc, the largest private employer in San Francisco, told its California employees to begin telecommuting March 7. In-person classes at Stanford University were cancelled starting March 9. And Twitter Inc, which strongly encouraged work from home on March 2, announced in a blog post it would be mandatory March 11. Countless smaller companies and startups in the Bay Area who never got headlines for their actions were doing the same.

By contrast, New York State’s stay-at-home order went into effect the evening of March 22. But Silicon Valley’s myriad tech companies were lucky in that they’re better suited than most for remote work, as they typically don’t involve in-person interaction with physical objects. That enabled many employers in the region to make the move quickly without devastating their businesses.

“From the very beginning we’ve talked about bold leadership from Google, Facebook, Salesforce and others,” said Dr. Robert Wachter, the chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “One of the factors is the actual removal: You have a big chunk of the region’s workforce no longer interacting with each other,” he said. The moves “also set a tone that was very important.” Politicians had more cover to make tough choices, Wachter said, once “big, smart companies that have led the world in looking around the corner and using data to make decisions were telling everyone to stay home.”

The effect was more than motivational. Not only were tens of thousands of workers not congregating in offices, they also weren’t going out to restaurants and, critically, weren’t taking public transit.

Dr. George Rutherford, an epidemiologist at UCSF, has included a slide in his recent presentations that shows how restaurant reservations via OpenTable dropped more precipitously in San Francisco than in Los Angeles and New York City. And the numbers of people taking Bay Area Rapid Transit, the local subway system known as BART, began falling in the first week of March. There was a 5% drop in ridership on Monday, March 2, and a 10% drop by that Thursday.

“Our ridership began dropping the first week of March and we believe this is directly tied to the fact major employers started requiring or strongly encouraging people work from home,” Alicia Trost, chief communications officer for BART, said in an email. By Friday March 13, weekly ridership had fallen by half, Trost said.

Now, as the conversation in the US turns toward re-opening society and the economy, if tech companies’ early moves are any indication, the Bay Area will proceed extremely carefully. Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive officer of Facebook Inc, wrote in a post Thursday that the vast majority of Facebook employees will work from home through at least the end of May. And with summer camps likely to cancel, leaving some working parents without childcare, many Facebook employees also plan to work from home through at least the summer.

Carl Guardino, the CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, expects that much will change as the region slowly gets back to work. Even the mostly empty streets during the lockdown, which some residents noted have produced cleaner air, might not snap back to the way things were.

“Pre-Covid-19 normal will not be the post-Covid-19 normal,” Guardino said. “The days of the handshake are behind us. Physical distancing will be much more formalised in all kinds of work, and I think people now realise that they don’t need to drive to every meeting like they had in the past.”

Much of the Valley is prepared to hunker down for a long time to come. The tech industry was a model of caution going into the crisis. It’s likely to be one coming out of it too. – Bloomberg