Thursday, October 18, 2018

A New Cold War?

Imagine the following not-so-unrealistic scenario: The US-China trade war deepens leading to a cold war. The US blocks all Chinese citizens from graduate school in the US. Visas between the two countries become hard to get. The Chinese close off their Internet to the West.
If things continue along this path, the next decade may see the internet relegated to little more than just another front on the new cold war.
I wouldn't have thought it in our hyperconnected age but we are in spitting distance of going back to the 60's. What would this all mean for science and computing?

Let's go back to the original cold war between the Soviet Union and the US roughly from 1947-1991. We didn't have a significant internet back then (though we can thank the cold war for the internet). One had to assume that the government read mail to/from USSR. Travel to and from the USSR and the Eastern block to the west was difficult. Academic research did cross over but only in dribs and drabs and we saw two almost distinct academic cultures emerge, often with duplication of effort (Cook/Levin, Borodin/Trakhtenbrot, Immerman/Szelepcsényi).

Beyond the limited communication came the lack of collaboration. Science works best with open discussion, sharing of ideas and collaborating with each other. It took a Russian and an American working together to give us Google.

No cold war in this age can completely cut off ideas flowing between countries but it can truly hamper knowledge growth. We can't count on US superiority with China already ahead of us in areas like high-speed trains, renewable energy and mobile payments.

The cold war did have an upside to science: The competition between the East and the West pushed research growth and funding on both sides. We already see arguments for quantum computing and machine learning by the necessity of staying ahead of the Chinese. But science funding should not be driven by fear but by curiosity and its indisputable long-term effects on our economy.

We must keep the flow of information and people open if we want science and technology to flourish to its fullest, from students through senior researchers. Don't let a new cold war bring us back to the days of separate communities, which will fail to produce the breakthroughs we will never know about.


  1. You should look around more perspicuously, beside Academia the "new cold war" is going on merrily for quite a while.

  2. The Chinese experience of internet is already very different from ours. It is one or two mega apps like WeChat and everything goes inside those apps. They don't use Google, they don't use Amazon, they don't use the most popular sites in the West.