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US mortally scared of China’s tech advances: Wireless pioneer Paulraj

In supercomputers, China rules. When Barack Obama decided not to supply computer chips to China to build supercomputers, they built their own processors whose speeds are stunning, said the award winning engineer Paulraj.

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Oct 22, 2019, 11.35 AM IST
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The US, Paulraj said, is mortally scared of the advances China has made.
(This story originally appeared in on Oct 17, 2019)
Arogyaswami Paulraj’s credentials are phenomenal. The Pollachi (Coimbatore)- born engineer served in the Indian Navy for 26 years. Then joined the Stanford faculty. He made pioneering contributions to the theory and development of what is called the Mimo (multiple-input, multiple-output) technology. Mimo lies at the heart of the current high-speed Wi-Fi and 4G mobile phones. For that and other work in the wireless space, Paulraj has won such prestigious awards as IEEE’s Alexander Graham Bell medal and the Marconi prize, and last year was inducted into the US Patent Trademark Office’s National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Since wireless communication has become core to economies — with substantial national security implications — Paulraj has been closely involved in academic, industry and government discussions around it, and related technologies. Mostly in the US, but also significantly in China. In a discussion with geopolitical and strategic experts organised by think tank Synergia Foundation in Bengaluru recently, Paulraj focused on China’s extraordinary advances in technology.

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Sucking in US knowledge
His thesis is that economic power and global influence is increasingly linked to mass-market high technologies — like information & communication technology, pharma, Industry 4.0 and civilian jets. They create income, and help build a military which protects the economy. And China, he said, recognised this a long time ago, and has been aggressively investing in high tech.

The country sent thousands of scholars to the US to learn. He said most visitors to his group in Stanford were Chinese. A lot of his students teach in China. “Nobody ever comes to India, but they go to China because the mechanisms to do that are there. China has sucked in knowledge. I’m kind of retired now, but earlier, I would get an email from China every day saying I can’t get admitted to Stanford, but I’ll come with my own money, sit in your group for one year, and I’ll go back and get my degree from my home institution,” Paulraj recollected.

Building world-class universities
China also started building universities focused on research. Some of those universities became so good that those like Stanford felt compelled to work with them. “The Saudis would come to Stanford saying, ‘We’ll pay you, we’ll spend billions to set up a university.’ We never went. But we opened a centre in Tsinghua University. We felt both could benefit,” Paulraj said.

Today, in the prestigious QS World University Ratings, Tsinghua is in the top 20, and there are 10 Chinese universities in the top 100, a list dominated by the US and Europe. Paulraj said the quality of Chinese research papers are extremely good. And, he said, they are much more hands-on, “they build stuff there”.

All this focus on research into high technology has made China a leader in critical areas, and they are seen to be rapidly advancing in others. In wireless, Paulraj said, Huawei has become ‘the’ company in the world — the best technology, relatively cheaper. Nokia, Ericsson and Samsung are nowhere close.

In AI (artificial intelligence), China is beginning to dominate. In a typical AI conference, he said, 60% of papers would be Chinese, and the remaining from the US and Europe. They are also using AI in mass applications. “I sometimes stay in these Chinese academies, and there are these cameras around that recognise your face. Once I was jaywalking, and a loudspeaker said, ‘Prof Paulraj, please don’t step on the road’.”

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In quantum computing, which can help crack encryption and in turn has serious national security implications, China is seen to be as good as, or better than, the US. Countries don’t typically declare their progress in the area. But China, he said, has declared they have technology in quantum encryption, which helps create a kind of encryption that cannot be broken at all. They say they use that to communicate with nuclear submarines and satellites.

In supercomputers, China rules. When Barack Obama decided not to supply computer chips to China to build supercomputers, they built their own processors whose speeds, Paulraj said, are stunning. In biotech, the Chinese are seen to have a lot more publications on a very powerful tool used called Crispr.

Blocking Chinese students, funds
The US, Paulraj said, is mortally scared of these advances China has made. They have been particularly unnerved by Chinese president Xi Jinping’s goal, set in 2015, that 70% of products in China should contain Chinese IP by 2025.

The US is today looking at every angle to block China. It has created a list of Chinese companies that cannot get American components or technologies. Huawei is one of them.

The US government, Paulraj said, has thought of sending back Chinese students. That has not happened. But Stanford cannot accept any more Chinese visitors. All grants given by Chinese companies to Stanford professors have been frozen. China cannot invest in a venture capital fund that invests in US high tech. “They are really building a Berlin wall between China and the US,” he said.
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