RACHEL OAKES WRITES: What do jaywalking, Facebook, and the cure for cancer all have in common? This may sound like the beginning of a bad joke, but in reality these things share a paramount common ground: they could cost (or win) China the modern tech race, and all their national security. The first quarter of 2018, which came to a close just recently, has shaken up the tech world. Now, things will never be the same.

To start, Facebook’s privacy leak scandal has put Mark Zuckerberg at the feet of a livid US Congress. The number of users whose data has been “improperly shared” with political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica has now been disclosed to be 87 million. “It’s clear now that we didn’t focus enough on preventing abuse,” said Zuckerberg in a prepared statement. “We didn’t take a broad enough view of what our responsibility is. That was a huge mistake, and it was my mistake.”

Facebook received feedback from Alibaba founder Jack Ma, stating, “I will say, Facebook, 15 years ago, they never expected this thing to grow like that.…Right, it’s like a social network, it’s got two billion using it! So all of the problems they did not realize came up!” Ma’s almost sympathetic statement recommended, “We should not kill the company…the senior management should take responsibility, say, hey, from now on we start to work on it.”

Ma is not the only one in China with eyes keen on this scandal, which has sent ripples throughout the US and Europe. At face value, the issue does not seem to concern China. The issue with Facebook is use of private data without user consent. China does not have that same issue. However, the Facebook scandal is still a scandal in China, because future regulatory actions from the scandal may impact China’s surveillance plans, both at home and abroad.

At home, Chinese traffic police have been using personal data to publicly shame jaywalkers, posting their faces on crossing screens and a government website. Now, through AI company ‘Intellifusion’ and local mobile phone carriers, authorities are also using facial-recognition technology to identify jaywalkers and automatically issue them fines by text.

Now with the Facebook scandal, the spotlight is on data security and privacy, and the pressure is on for this new jaywalking tech. Li Yi, chief fellow at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said, “We always need to strike the balance between law enforcement and privacy protection.” Furthermore, with possible new regulation, Intellifusion’s hopes to spread their tech overseas will be affected, possibly stunted before they begin.

Although Facebook’s drama and China’s new AI tech may seem like merely trendy issues, they converge at a crucial point for China in the race for quantum computing. Beginning 35 years ago in the dreams of computer scientists, quantum computing has been little other than theory – up until now. Leading companies in the field say that commercial applications for quantum computing will be practically available within five years.

So what’s the big deal? What can quantum computers really do for the world? A lot, it turns out – including curing cancer. Canadian company D-Wave, one of the companies working to commercialize quantum computing, is focusing in on cancer research. “It’s happening now,” co-founder Haig Farris said. “Ten years from now you will probably be being treated with some quantum computing designed drug.”

The applications of quantum computing have even bigger ramifications for global security, both public and private. Imagine you have the power to hack into any computer. “Security” is nothing – you have access to nuclear football codes, in any country, at any time. Personal information on anyone? Not a problem to get. Now stop imagining it, because that’s where quantum computing will have us in five years. Tony Trippe, managing director of Patinformatics, said it well: “An organization or a nation that had quantum computer technologies would have significantly easier time of wreaking havoc on other systems,” he said. On the other hand, getting to quantum computing first could save national security for the winner. “We’re talking about encrypting data so it can’t be broken,” says Trippe. “It would be an unhackable system.”

Some believe that China has an edge in quantum technology, like IBM’s CTO for quantum computing. He states that “the US government investment in driving this critical technology is not sufficient to stay competitive.” Similarly, Jonathan Dowling of LSU worries that, “what we’re seeing is a bunch of different things going on at once with no overall organization, unlike in China, where they are exactly sure what they’re doing.” So the moves China makes (or does not) on a global security scale mean more than ever.

So, the race is on, and the stakes are high. Chinese universities and companies like Baidu are locked into competition with US giants IBM, Microsoft, and Google, with other countries like Russia and Canada nipping at their heels. This is where data security issues like Facebook’s and Intellifusion’s come to a head – with all the sensitive data out there, the way China handles new security regulations and quantum computing research are of paramount to their future endeavors and growth.

I’ll leave you with one final quote by Haig Farris: “Did fire change our life? Did the wheel change our life? Did the Industrial Revolution with steam engines change our life? The impact of quantum computing will be bigger than any other.” For China, 2018 marks a new challenge, and the world is watching to see who will come out on top.

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