China’s Digital Silk Road

The hundred or so Chinese scientists and tourists gathered in Nuuk, Greenland must have caught the attention of many locals in their tiny capital, (population 50,000).  The Chinese visitors had gathered to witness the “launch” of a satellite ground station, which will ultimately help support the new Chinese Beidou satellite navigation system, a project designed to provide a Chinese alternative to the current US global positioning service (GPS).

In reality the ground station was just a antennae fixed to existing equipment and anything more ambitious had been blocked by the Danish government who did not want upset their US allies by hosting sensitive Chinese satellite equipment. But the fact that the Chinese government wanted to build such a facility in Greenland in the first place demonstrates their ambitions for space and the fact that they need better satellite coverage to make a success of the Digital Silk Road, an offshoot of the main Belt and Road Initiative.

Beidou is one ingredient in Digital Silk Road, but the concept also includes the expansion of digital infrastructure by technology giants such as Huawei and others who have been at the forefront of building the cables and networks that make internet usage possible, not to mention the production of smart phones and computers that have changed people’s lives and have dramatically widened web access in developing markets.

However many nations could have good reason to be wary of Chinese firms like Huawei. The company’s activities have been severely curtailed in the US due to spying fears and a recent story which alleged that the computers and AV equipment in the Chinese built African Union building were sending recorded conversations back to China has highlighted the danger of allowing foreign powers to develop your infrastructure.

Another element to a Digital Silk Road is a huge expansion in the internet of things (IoT), this means thousands, indeed millions of devices connected to the internet allowing everything from cars to heating systems to machine parts to provide updates on performance, identify problems and report them in real time as well as receiving software updates. This will mean washing machines ordering repairs and parts, fridges ordering food and factories which can sense problems in the production process and report them before they get worse.

Naturally the expansion of IoT will create new problems around cyber security and privacy and increase the ever growing and pervading feeling that humans are becoming over reliant on technology, but the IoT will allow developing countries to make major efficiency gains across their economies, this is being demonstrated in practical terms in the emergence of “smart cities” where technology is being used to its full potential to make the lives of its inhabitants easier by through increased automation.

Smart cities are also another key element of the Digital Silk Road – China’s flagship smart city Yinchuan in Ningxia Province Northern China is deep in Silk Road country. In Yinchuan facial recognition allows users to pay bus fares upon boarding, rubbish bins tell authorities when they need emptying and compact to create more space using solar power.

In the city hall holograms answer resident’s questions and online doctors have become commonplace. By utilising the Internet of Things, big data and careful urban planning the government has moved many transactions online and in theory created a more efficient society.

The Chinese are also partnering with Saudi Arabia to develop a huge new smart city called Neom by the Red Sea – however the collaboration of two authoritarian states on a project such as this should be make observers pause for thought and consider the ability of governments to control people’s lives once they have so much information on its citizens and the technology to analyse so easily.

The Saudis hope to develop Neom, itself a centre piece of the country’s 2030 vision to modernise the Kingdom into a showcase for the country and region. The plan is for Neom act as a blank slate, a brand new city in which technology will dominate both economy and society, demonstrating the best in artificial intelligence, robotics, renewable energy and automation. It of course remains to be seen whether Saudi Arabia can pivot away from oil and develop a big tech sector given its dependence on crude and whether such a closed, conservative society can cultivate a thriving technology industry.

The Digital Belt and Road Program (DBARP) chaired by Chinese scientist Guo Huadong – is a scheme which plans to use satellite data to track environmental change over Eurasia. There are many fragile environments such as the Tibetan plateau and, Russian arboreal forests to the steppes of Kazakhstan, they are all threatened by deforestation, over-development and climate change.

Observation of these environments is essential to understanding them and preventing further damage. DBARP plan a platform which will allow the transfer and access to of valuable information. This includes CropWatch, which will manage and monitor the availablity of corn, maize and rice.

The platform will also allow open sharing of earth data, promote data sharing among users, extend applications like CropWatch, identify further research opportunities and enhance international collaboration.

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