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Tech Thursday Episode 36

Daoist ritual for the nuclear gods, UFO in the sky, semiconductor ambitions, and more woeful news for human Go players

05·10·2018

Each Thursday, The World of Chinese takes the most ground-breaking, impressive, or just plain weird technological advancements related to the Middle Kingdom and serves them in bite-sized chunks to keep you up-to-date on the latest news in the world of Chinese technology.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…

On April 27, at around 7 p.m., witnesses across Northern China—from Inner Mongolia to Beijing to Shandong—saw what they described as “a curling beam of white” light spiralling across the night sky, turning several times before vanishing.

A shocking lack of official explanations had netizens speculating as to what the UFO was, with the most popular options being a Bei Dou navigation satellite being sent into orbit, an anti-ballistics missile test, and a supersonic vehicle. The Chinese Academy of Sciences wasn’t much help either, confirming only that the images depicted a condensation trail at an altitude of 80 to 100 kilometers, reflecting the sun—accurate, but not at all interesting. Or explanatory.

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Photo of the mysterious object taken from Ordos, Inner Mongolia, by Zoe Zhang

Daoist Blessing Backfires

At a recent ground-breaking ceremony for a new state-of-the-art Thorium Molten Salt Reactor Nuclear Energy System (MSR) in Minqin county, Gansu province, some local Daoist monks were invited to perform traditional rituals to expel evil spirit and ensure the safety of the MSR project.

The rituals included sacrificing a sheep, burning paper talismans, and singing prayers—all the usual nuclear-reactor offerings, in other words—while chanting: “Wise masters can ward off evil, their magic can block nuclear radiation. Burning incense and reciting scriptures will drive disaster away, and none should worry about Minqin being destroyed.”

Unfortunately, PRC officials were less than amused by this hybrid display of science and spirituality, and two senior CAS staff who had failed to stop the event from happening suspended, while seven public employees of the local government who actually attended the ceremony are “under investigation.” Hopefully, this bureaucratic crackdown will not offend any evil spirits.

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Prayers and slaughtered sheep: sure to please the ancient gods of nuclear reaction (baijiahao)

AI Go with Chinese characteristics

Nearly a year after famously losing to AlphaGo (the Go-playing AI backed by Google), world champion Go player Ke was defeated and humiliated once again at the ancient strategy game—this time by a Chinese AI. Since its launch in April, the winning program, named “Golaxy,” has won 28 of 30 games against internationally ranked Go players.

He even kept the same haircut as last time (Lesports)

Ke did change his haircut slightly (Lesports)

Funded by Beijing-based investment firm NCF Group, Golaxy is reported to use a different algorithm from AlphaGo. At a press conference, Golaxy chairman Jin Xing said their AI can reach the same level of mastery as AlphaGo from playing even fewer matches, thus reducing the time and resources needed to train it. (Do we detect another US-China tech stand-off in the making?)

Though Golaxy’s victory made some excited about the future of artificial learning, Ke was obviously less than thrilled. On May 7, he wrote on Weibo that many professional players are now using AI in training, and jokingly asked: “Should I save some money to buy a computer to run AI programs? Is it too late for me to learn programming?” One of the most-liked comments under this post, though, joked:“Isn’t programming also something that AI can do?”

Coming soon: Another 47-billion USD semiconductor fund

Beijing’s escalating bid to “cast off illusions and rely only on itself” (in the recent words of Xi Jinping, standing atop the Three Gorges Dam) is taking shape with news of a state-backed 47 billion USD investment fund. The fund will finance China’s semiconductor research and chip start-up development.

Talk of the imminent China Integrated Circuit Industry Investment Fund Co. is far from new, but previous reports of the dollar amount involved have varied wildly, from 19 to 31.5 to the latest figure of 47 billion—which is curiously the same size as another fund, backed in 2015 by the (clearly deep-pocketed) Tsinghua University to, uh, “spur the development of an indigenous semiconductor industry.”

China may not have that indigenous industry yet, but it sure has a shed-ton of cash to spend on promising one.

 

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