AUDIO VERSION OF ARTICLE BELOW.
Last week, while partaking in an emerging technology event for the Department of Defense, I encountered a scientist who was developing a brain control interface (BCI). Because the event was off-the-record, I’ll not give the name of the scientist or many details on his particular technology. All that I will say is that the future is now…and it is by no means a guarantee that the United States will remain the dominant national power in the future.
According to the gentleman developing the BCI, his company was offered $143 million by a Chinese state-owned entity to move to China and conduct their cutting-edge research and development there rather than the United States. That’s a lot of money for anyone—especially someone involved in high-tech R&D. When I asked him why he chose to remain stateside, he simply responded that, “I don’t like Chinese food.”
He then elaborated by saying that, as a scientist, he had many concerns about the ethics of this kind of research (or, rather, lack of ethics) in China. It was obvious this technology would be used for nefarious purposes.
Although the scientist and his company would’ve gotten filthy rich, they’d have been handing literal mind-control capabilities over to a regime that prizes Orwellian Group-Think and routinely attempts to perfect their people—and to influence the rest of the world—according to their socialist dogmas.
That’s a frightening prospect, though, that the only thing holding China back from acquiring Brain-Control Interface technology presently is the personal moral standards of individual Western scientists and business leaders. Inevitably, someone will take China up on such a lucrative offer. Many Westerners in other high-technology fields, ranging from biotechnology to artificial intelligence, already have—with horrifying results.
Giving the People’s Republic of China brain control technology, however rudimentary, is not something that we should desire. Yet, as this scientist—and Musk—have made clear: the capabilities to develop this technology are here today.
According to the scientist I met with in Washington, D.C., we are about two years away from being able to take this technology to market. The only inhibitor to that from occurring is the regulatory environment—namely American regulators and policymakers do not understand the technology, are skeptical of its efficacy, and fail to imagine a world in which exotic technologies are the norm.
In China, they do not have a failure of imagination, as evidenced by their attempt to purchase the scientist’s BCI technology for $143 million. Whatever China cannot build at home they attempt to coopt from abroad. My friend and colleague, David P. Goldman, has rightly described this Chinese tactic as “Sino-Forming”.
Or, more colorfully, Goldman describes this as the Borg approach to technology and national development.
In essence, like the Borg from Star Trek: The Next Generation, China seeks to assimilate your cultural and technological distinctiveness into their collective.
China Wants to Own Our Future—This Is How
As I have spent years elaborating, China has replicated this dangerous pattern first with manufacturing, then with high-technology. And we in the West have not only allowed for this unfortunate set of events to occur but some of our biggest firms and best minds have encouraged it to happen under the imprimatur of “neoliberalism.”
China knows what it wants. When it cannot get there on its own, it entices and induces foreign firms, talent, and investors to come to China and build for China the product it needs. China’s leaders understand the implications of an exotic technology like BCI.
By inserting carbon nano-tubes into the base of the skull, a very tiny computer chip can be implanted that receives and transmits signals from an individual’s brain. From there, commands can be sent to that implant that could literally take over the body of the person with the implant. Since 2014, China “has gained parity with international counterparts in [Carbon Nanotube] production, though its graphene suppliers lag global competition.”
While limited by the graphene supply issue, China’s parity with CNT production means it can now compete in the creation of Brain-Control Interfaces. And that should frighten everyone.
The DoD is interested in this technology from an interface standpoint. Essentially, the Pentagon wants to know if they can create secure, more robust interlinks between human users of equipment and computers, and the machines themselves. While all of this is in its infancy, the Pentagon sees a potential future where, for example, a fighter pilot can become one with his warplane—not unlike the brain interface in the magnificent cult classic, Farscape, between the captain of a living starship named Talyn.
The commercial potential for this technology is also great. Imagine being able to “jack-in” to the internet similar to how Keanu Reeves and his comrades in The Matrix did.
This is all part of what Ray Kurzweil has theorized is the “singularity,” when man merges with machine to become a seamless cybernetic entity. It’s still more science fiction than reality right now.
But the capability for a basic BCI is here and it is growing. Demand will soon follow. Who will supply the technology, the United States or China, is the greater question.
A decade ago, the implant was unwieldy. And the implantation process was dangerous. Thanks to advances in nano-chip production, as well as the ubiquity of nano-carbon tubes, both Musk and the scientist I spoke with in Washington, D.C. have proven that we’ve already made the vital first steps toward turning this particular bit of science fiction into science fact.
China, however, likely has far greater plans than simply using a BCI for interfacing between tech users and technology. While China does want to gain a commercial advantage over Western technology firms, their interest in this technology—and nearly every other kind of technology—goes beyond the greed factor.
Chinese R&D, Practices and Progress
Beijing has a totalitarian regime that wants to use high-technology development to enhance its control over China (and the world).
China’s government has invested heavily in artificial intelligence, cloud computing, quantum computing, biotechnology, fifth-generation (5G) internet, which most experts believe China has won the race for global 5G dominance, as well as sixth-generation (6G) internet networks.
Beijing is building out its space capabilities and is attempting to displace America’s Global Positioning System (GPS) in the world’s largest market share—the Indo-Pacific—with their Beidou GPS network. Since most of Asia already relies on Chinese-produced (Huawei) smartphones, once the Beidou network is fully (please say this in your best Emperor Palpatine voice) armed and operational, the Chinese-produced smartphones of the region will automatically connect to Beidou systems in orbit rather than American ones.
All of this not only gives China a military and economic advantage over its competitors. These developments also give China’s regime greater political power over their own people. Think about it: Chinese generals routinely speak about using CRISPR and other biotechnology capabilities to conduct “specific genetic attacks”upon those with whom they disagree.
We know that the ongoing human rights catastrophe the PRC is waging against the Muslim Uyghurs of Xinjiang Province is providing Beijing’s scientists with a compendium of genetic data on this unpopular ethnic group in China. It is also widely believed that artificial intelligence, once fully built, will enhance the ability of biotechnologists to do their cutting-edge research. Imagine Chinese biotechnologists using that vast genetic database on the Muslim Uyghurs to synthesize illnesses and other forms of genetic warfare upon their domestic political opponents.
Further, it is well known that China’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic out of Wuhan was cutting edge: Beijing effectively employed rudimentary artificial intelligence, cloud computing, and data sharing from Huawei smartphones and equipment to conduct radical social distancing and contact tracing programs meant to mitigate the spread of the pandemic.
Because of the innovative use of exotic technology, China’s regime was likely able to curb the worst excesses of the pandemic that have otherwise ravaged more liberal Western states (of course, Beijing complete disregarded any human or civil rights of their population to enforce such harsh quarantine measures. Nonetheless, it worked).
Pulling It All Together
Let’s extrapolate these practices into the nascent BCI market.
Suppose the Communist Chinese intelligence services have captured a political rival or their followers and they install Brain-Control Interface tech onto those prisoners. How would that impact potential anti-PRC groups in China? Or suppose they outfitted each Chinese citizen with these interfaces. China’s authorities already collect a staggering level of information on their population, through things like nationwide closed-circuit security monitors, the aforementioned collection of smartphone data, etc., what happens when China has reliable BCI technology?
What happens if China manages to attach these devices onto foreigners abroad? We already know Beijing has a robust program for co-opting Western politicians, researchers, business leaders, and other notables. Who’s to say that this technology could not be used to further exploit foreign societies and force them to do China’s bidding?
The United States is wholly unprepared for such a world. Most scientists believe that this technology could be available in as little as two years!
While America may not have this technology available then due to regulations and political leaders’ failure to imagine, who’s to say that China won’t eventually be able to co-opt some greedy Westerners who may not like Chinese food but love lots of Chinese money into developing this capability for Beijing?
If Washington is not ready for this new world, Beijing is. In fact, Beijing is heralding its creation, believing that its centralized and totalitarian system is better suited to benefit from these new advances than the free and decentralized—disorganized, in China’s view—societies of the West.
What’s needed, then, is for Washington to fully embrace these new technologies; to build the infrastructure for their R&D here, rather than to allow for Beijing to suck those capabilities over to China, and then craft meaningful regulations and shape moral uses for these products. There is no turning the dial back on this exotic tech.
At the same time, the United States government should prevent the sharing of exotic technology with China by making such technology transfers from Western firms/individuals/labs to Chinese entities illegal bribes under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
Washington must also use the Committee for Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to effectively curb Chinese efforts to legally buy into high-tech research and development here (where the Chinese firms would then absorb that information and fold it into their indigenous efforts). There is much, much more that the United States government must do to curb Chinese investment and tech transfers to China, but that is the subject of a longer, future article.
It is not enough to simply stymie and stunt technology transfers or illicit Chinese investment into high technology R&D here in the United States. Greater innovation and R&D here in the US must be fostered.
Due to the unconventional nature and high risk to private sector venture capital, the United States government will have to do for this new spate of technology what it did for high-tech in the late twentieth century: it will have to invest US tax dollars into building the infrastructure for the ecosystem to support the rapid development of this exotic technology.
In so doing, America can sit atop of the new century’s greatest innovations and products and ensure it remains the world’s superpower in the same way that the US did in the previous century. China is doing precisely this same pattern of development (it’s no wonder that the works of both Mariana Mazzucato and Michele Wucker are so popular in China today).
Like the Americans of the twentieth century—and as I hope, the Americans of the twenty-first century—the Chinese of today want to create the ecosystem for exotic technology R&D in China so that their country benefits most from these new developments.
By having the almighty first-mover advantage, however, America can help to prevent the slipshod Chinese from shaping the future in ways that are inimical to the United States. Otherwise, China will beat America and will truly become the dominant player in the world by 2049, as Xi Jinping envisions.
Brandon J. Weichert is the author of “Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower” (Republic Book Publishers). He can be followed via Twitter @WeTheBrandon and Clubhouse @wethebrandon.
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