»  Taki's Magazine

January 19th, 2011

  China's Killer App


This week's state visit of Hu Jintao, China's "president" — I would prefer to say "head apparatchik," since "president" implies an elected position, which is not the case — has fired off another round of China-up? / China-down? speculation in the press. In the present climate of American national foreboding, the speculation comes paired with America-up? / America-down? comparisons.

My own view of the matter, to get it out of the way, is that both nations face very grave, though very different, systemic problems, which neither is psychologically well-equipped to deal with.

The U.S.A. is, as all thoughtful people realize, afflicted with untenable public finances. The necessary corrections, when politicians can no longer avoid them, will require very skilful handling. Our national task is to retreat from the gross fiscal irresponsibility of the past 20 years; and orderly retreat is, as any military strategist will tell you, the most difficult and dangerous of all maneuvers, beset by the peril that the troops will at some point throw down their weapons and flee in panic.

China's systemic problems are likewise well-advertised: massive wealth disparity, stupendous corruption, environmental devastation, fiscal opacity, restless subject populations, moon-booted diplomacy, fearful neighbors, etc. Whether the blinkered control-freak technocrats who rule China are more crisis-capable than our own media-mediated politicians must be a matter of opinion, though we can at least console (or reprove) ourselves with the thought that we freely chose ours.

America's strong card is our "installed base" of wealth, education, and common political understandings. Our weak card is our diversity, which is "celebrated" with sincerity only in elementary-school classrooms, college admissions offices, and Chambers of Commerce.

China's weakness is that she has yet to lift up a billion or so subsistence peasants into 21st-century standards — or even, in many regions, 19th-century standards — of knowledge and prosperity. Her strength, those peripheral subject populations aside, lies in tribal solidarity.

(Having linked to that Joel Kotkin essay, I note in passing how odd are Kotkin's thought processes, acknowledging the value of ethnic cohesion while simultaneously cheering on the U.S.A.'s transformation into a Mexican-style racially-stratified society. Cue the indispensible Steve Sailer.)

For the near future — the coming two or three decades — the key issue in the China-America contest may be: Who will come up with the next killer technology?

I'm using the phrase "killer technology" there in the sense in which, when personal-computer usage was climbing the steep part of its curve in the early 1980s, we used to say "killer app." (Perhaps people still do say "killer app," I don't know. I can't keep up. The archetypical killer app was VisiCalc, the first best-selling spreadsheet program.)

The killer technology of the age just past was the Internet. It is astonishing to recall now that until little more than a quarter-century ago — 1983 was the date — it was illegal for an unauthorized civilian to use the Internet. Now the Internet is one of the pillars of our civilization.

What will be the killer technology of the next quarter-century? There is not much doubt — some doubt, but not much — that it will be human genomics. The first sequencing of a human genome in 2003 was foundational, equivalent Internet-wise to the first ARPANET communication in 1969.

That sequencing, however, only got us into the situation of the proverbial bear who went over the mountain to find himself confronted with another mountain. It's grand to have an entire human genome to look at; but what does all that stuff mean? What does it do? The answers to those questions will emerge only after another decade or two of data mining.

There are reasons to think that China may take the lead in this effort. She may, in fact, already have done so.

Ten years ago I was chatting with a friend who runs a research team at Cold Spring Harbor lab, just down the road from me here in Long Island. An immigrant from mainland China, my friend was in touch with genomics research over there in the People's Republic. Why didn't he move back there? I asked him. Surely his line of work was much less constrained by ethical and legal issues in China? (I had just written an article on this topic.)

"They have no money!" he replied. Apparently genomics research in China just wasn't sufficiently well funded to engage his interest.

How things have changed:

Hong Kong is poised to become an international gene sequencing and genomics research hub, thanks to the work of the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI), mainland China's leading genomic company. BGI set up its genome sequencing research lab thanks to a 10 billion yuan low-interest loan from the state-run China Development Bank.

Ten billion is a lot of yuan (around $1.5bn), and there is plenty more where that came from.

The main point in that 2001 article I'd written has also turned out to be prescient. Chinese genomics research is casting its net wide — wider than would be thought proper in our own gene-shy public culture. One of BGI's programs is studying the genetic basis for the heritability of IQ. That heritability is variously estimated by researchers at between 40 and 80 percent. Prevailing state dogma in the U.S.A., however, insists the correct number is zero percent, so that no such work could be done here, certainly not on billion-dollar soft loans from the feds.

This year, according to a very respectable science journal, will be the year of the $1,000 genome sequencing, and the steep reductions in unit cost will continue into the foreseeable future on a sort of Moore's Law principle. China, with her inhibition-free interest in the human genome, may be the first entire nation to be sequenced.

That will vastly expand the database for data miners to burrow into. They will undoubtedly discover deep new seams of knowledge — knowledge about humanity, about our diseases and capabilities, our bodies and minds, our history and prospects, our unities and divisions.

If the Chinese can keep their nation in one piece — the present regime has already lasted longer than 19 of the 34 dynasties listed on W.M. Hawley's Oriental Culture Chart # 20a — they will own the killer technology of the coming age. Let's hope they don't take the word "killer" too literally.