In its battle with the US, China is specializing in seven frontier applied sciences, from chips to brain-computer fusion

GUANGZHOU, China – China is eager to advance research into so-called “frontier technology,” including quantum computers and semiconductors, as it competes with the US for supremacy in the latest innovations.

In its five-year development plan, the 14th of its kind, Beijing said it would “make the self-reliance and self-improvement of science and technology a strategic pillar for national development,” according to a CNBC translation.

Prime Minister Li Keqiang said Friday that China would increase research and development spending by more than 7% a year between 2021 and 2025 in order to achieve “major technological breakthroughs”.

China’s tech champions like Huawei and SMIC have been hit by US sanctions as tensions between Beijing and Washington have increased in recent years.

Because of this, China has focused on improving its domestic expertise in areas it deems strategically important, such as semiconductors. And now it has identified seven “frontier technologies” that will be a priority not only for the next five years but beyond.

1) Artificial Intelligence (AI)

China plans to focus on specialized chip development for AI applications and the development of so-called open source algorithms. Open source technology is usually developed by one entity and licensed by other companies.

There will also be a focus on machine learning in areas such as decision-making. Machine learning is the development of AI programs that are trained on huge amounts of data. The program “learns” when more data is fed in.

AI has been a key field for Chinese companies and the central government in recent years. Big companies like Alibaba and Baidu have invested in the technology.

China and the US are competing for AI dominance. A group of experts chaired by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt said China could soon replace the US as the world’s “AI superpower”.

2) quantum information

3) Integrated circuits or semiconductors

Semiconductors are a critical area for China, where it has invested heavily in recent years, but the country has struggled to catch up with the US, Taiwan and South Korea.

The problem is the complexity of the semiconductor supply chain. Taiwan’s TSMC and South Korea’s Samsung are the two most advanced chipmakers, but they rely on tools from the US and Europe.

Washington has put SMIC, China’s largest chip maker, on an export blacklist called the Entity List. SMIC cannot get its hands on American technology. According to reports, the US has been pushing to prevent Dutch company ASML from providing a key tool that could help SMIC catch up with competitors.

Because China does not have the companies that can design and manufacture the tools its chipmakers need, it relies on companies from other countries. China wants to change that.

In its five-year plan, China says it will focus on research and development on tools for integrated circuit design, key equipment, and key materials.

Chips are incredibly important as they fit in many of the devices we use, such as smartphones, but are also important for other industries.

4) brain research

China plans to explore areas such as fighting brain diseases.

According to a CNBC translation, “brain-inspired computing” and “brain-computer fusion technology” will also be examined. The five-year plan did not go into what that might look like.

China has identified seven “frontier” technologies in its fourteenth five-year plan. These are areas China will focus on, including semiconductors and brain-computer fusion.

Yuichiro Chino | Moment | Getty Images

In the USA, however, such work is already underway at Elon Musk’s company Neuralink. Musk is working on implantable brain-chip interfaces to connect people and computers.

5) Genomics and Biotechnology

With the outbreak of the coronavirus last year, biotechnology has grown in importance.

China says it will focus on “innovative vaccines” and “biosafety research”.

6) Clinical Medicine and Health

China’s research will focus on understanding the progression of cancer, cardiovascular, respiratory and metabolic diseases.

The government also says it will research some “cutting edge” treatment technologies such as regenerative medicine. This includes drugs that can regrow or repair damaged cells, tissues, and organs.

China says it will also look at key technologies for the prevention and treatment of serious communicable diseases.

7) space, deep earth, deep sea and polar exploration

Space exploration has been a top priority for China lately. Beijing said it will focus on “the origin and evolution of the universe,” exploring Mars, and deep-sea and polar exploration.

In December, a Chinese spaceship returned to Earth with stones from the moon. It was the first time China launched a spaceship from an alien body and collected lunar samples for the first time.

And in July, China launched a mission to Mars called Tianwen-1.

– CNBC’s Iris Wang contributed to this report.

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