May 21, 2019

Event Coverage Highlight

Panel 4: Technology as a Tool for Control

Left to right: Sophie Richardson, Rebecca Blumenstein, Bill Holstein and Dexter “Tiff” Roberts. Photo: Chad Bouchard

Huawei, Huawei, Huawei. In the final panel of the day, the topic was how both nascent and long-established technologies have become tools of control. Though panelists and audience alike were interested in emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and smart cities, the conversation seemed to veer back to telecom giant Huawei and its major developments towards establishing 5G mobile networks both within and beyond China’s borders.

Bill Holstein noted that those developments reflect not only differences in technological capabilities, but also larger philosophical differences in the ways that the two countries develop and roll out technology.

“China takes a long-term, 5-to10 year development cycle for transformational technologies. We don’t,” explained Bill Holstein, former OPC president. The result: Though both countries are working to advance areas like AI and quantum computing, he said, the 5G rollout has been the first instance, he says, in which the US doesn’t have a response.

Moderated by Rebecca Blumenstein, Pulitzer prize winner and deputy managing editor of The New York Times, the panel began with a look at the recent past. Every panelist agreed that in the last decade, the U.S. tended to underestimate China’s ability to develop the technologies that are used today, while Dexter “Tiff” Roberts, a Mansfield Fellow at the University of Montana, suggested that the U.S. may now be overestimating China’s ability to advance other areas, like robotics.

Each of the panelists pointed to surveillance as a potential problem area. Tiff Roberts looked at domestic affairs, citing surveillance in Xinjiang, the autonomous province in Northwest China that houses many ethnic minority populations, including the oft-persecuted Uyghurs. Bill Holstein looked at China’s actions abroad, citing recent security breaches at large, multi-national corporations like Equifax and the Marriott as evidence of the country’s ability to acquire Big Data. “The question among the American data people is: What are they doing with all of these data?” he asked.

Sophie Richardson, Human Rights Watch’s director of China, took a broader view, pointing to a tendency in the media to make spurious or unfounded claims that the Chinese don’t value privacy. “Why would you logically expect people to value a right that they’ve never had?”