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Responding to China’s tech advances

Sustaining US leadership in technology requires investing in advanced research, not locking our doors.

October 23, 2018
Photo of MIT president L Rafael Reif
Photo of MIT president L Rafael ReifSimon Simard

MIT people push the frontiers of technology with a passion for facts, so here’s one that demands attention: it’s now clear that China is not an innovation also-ran that prospers mainly by copying others’ ideas and producing them quickly at low cost. Indeed, China is advancing rapidly on a unified strategy—“Made in China 2025”—to lead the world in manufacturing and technology.

In quantum computing, 5G networks, and high-speed rail, technology being developed in China is world class. In mobile payment and in facial and spoken-language recognition, Chinese companies are global leaders, having made the most of their advanced algorithms and advantages in scale and data access. China is also investing boldly in research, directly supporting startups and recruiting talent around the world. And it has unrivaled capacity to rapidly ramp up large-scale production of advanced technology products—the fast lane from innovation to market. These and many more advances have been impressive.

Recent US efforts to stop intellectual-­property theft and unfair trade practices—even if fully effective—would not allow this country to relax back into a position of unquestioned innovation leadership. Unless America responds to the scale and intensity of this challenge, China is likely to become the world’s most advanced technological nation, and the source of the most advanced technological products, in not much more than a decade.

America should take China’s aspirations as inspiration to double down on its own formidable assets, including the immense global strength of our technology sector. This depends in part on something no other country has been able to emulate: the large number of first-rate American universities pursuing advanced research with long-term federal support. This relationship is rooted in a national culture of opportunity and entrepreneurship, inspired by an atmosphere of intellectual freedom, and supported by the rule of law. And, crucially, it fosters new heights of creativity by uniting brilliant talent from every sector of our society and every corner of the world. For decades, these factors have helped make the US the most powerful scientific and technological engine on earth.

China aspires to be the best it can be, and the US should, too. To sustain US leadership in science and innovation, our nation needs to build a farsighted competitiveness strategy. If all we do in response to China’s ambition is try to double-lock all our doors, I believe we will lock ourselves into mediocrity. But if we respect China as a rising competitor with many strengths we can learn from, that view will inspire America to be its incomparable best.

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