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February 22, 2022updated 16 Aug 2023 9:39am

What China’s lead in edge computing means for the world

Latest patent filings for edge computing show that China's industries are innovating rapidly. Some are worried about its implications for Western democracies.

By Afiq Fitri

China’s edge computing industry has seen explosive growth in innovation in the last year, according to an exclusive Tech Monitor analysis of the latest patent filings provided by the innovation research firm GreyB. Seven out of ten organisations that filed the most edge computing patent filings in the past year are Chinese, and all of the top ten universities.

This innovation has been driven by China’s rapid 5G roll-out and its pursuit of smart grids. But edge computing’s applications in AI-powered surveillance has some worried about how China’s head start in edge innovation will shape the technology for the rest of us. 

China’s edge computing advantage

The widespread coverage of 5G networks has been described as the key enabler of edge computing, as most edge devices require ultra-low latency to process and analyse high-volume data transfers in real time.

Despite rolling out its first commercial 5G services in October 2019 – six months later than the United States, South Korea and Switzerland – China’s infrastructure development moved at such breakneck speed that it reportedly built 150,000 new 5G base stations in less than two months

By the end of 2021, China had more than a million 5G base stations across the country, according to figures recently released by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. Estimates from the European 5G Observatory put this number slightly lower at approximately 916,000. By comparison, the US has installed just 50,000 5G stations since 2019. 

Dr Robert Spalding, CEO of digital infrastructure vendor Sempre and former brigadier general in the US Air Force, believes that the US government does not currently view edge computing as a strategic concern because the private sector is “not telling them we have a problem yet”. The “industry is more geared to the business they have today, not the business the country needs tomorrow,” he says.

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US telecommunications companies are still focused on today's telecommunications paradigm, with mixed 4G and 5G networks serving smartphones, Spalding says. This means they are not yet exploring the possibilities of pure 5G networks, including edge computing. “You don’t really get the full power of 5G as a standards-based system for software-defined networking,” he says. “The way that China leverages standalone 5G technology frees them from a lot of the hardware-specific technologies that were built into old telecommunications networks.” 

This, Spalding believes, will allow China's tech giants to set the direction for digital innovation in the coming decade. “Chinese companies like Tencent, Huawei and ZTE are going to become dominant in the era of 5G, because they’re actually deploying the infrastructure to support those edge devices.”

How smart grids drive edge computing innovation in China

The latest patent filings data related to edge computing provided by the innovation research firm GreyB to Tech Monitor show that the country’s industry has leveraged its vast 5G infrastructure to drive forward innovation with dramatic effect. While patent counts are just one indicator of a country’s innovation, they can reveal its pace and intent when combined with other factors, according to Sushant Kumar, lead researcher at GreyB.

Seven out of the top ten organisations with the most patent filings for edge computing since the end of the first quarter of 2021 are based in China. The State Grid Corporation of China filed the most patents, with 456 in total, followed by the Guangdong Power Grid Corporation and US chipmaker Intel. 

As this suggests, China's pursuit of smart grids helps explain its progress in edge computing. In 2016, the country’s State Council issued its 13th Five-Year National Science and Technology Innovation Plan which mandated that China should be a global leader in a plethora of strategic technologies, including smart grids.

The results of this ambition can be seen in cities including Qingdao, a port city in Eastern China, where the country’s “largest 5G smart grid” can supposedly “remove faults in distribution lines within milliseconds” and significantly reduces the power consumption of a 5G base station.

“China has simply the largest power grid system in the world due to its land mass, so it requires billions of devices and high-power voltage lines to provide electricity,” explains Professor Liu Jiangchuan, founder of edge computing service provider Jiangxing AI. “If you think about monitoring these power lines in real time, edge computing plays a very important role if you want to modernise these power grid systems and make it a reliable source of energy.”

One of the State Grid’s most significant innovations concerns boosting the resilience of energy networks in harsh environments such as the Gobi Desert, Liu explains. “In the past, you had to send people to these remote areas to maintain the networks but today, they’re trying to replace ageing monitoring devices that use batteries with a real-time monitoring system powered by edge computing," he says. "This solves bandwidth issues in these environments as only critical information will be sent back to the data centre."

China’s historic universities have also emerged as critical nodes in the edge computing ecosystem. Data from GreyB shows that all of the top ten universities with the most patent filings since March 2021 are based in China, with Beijing University of Posts & Telecommunications taking the top spot with 189 patents filed. 

Liu attributes this to China’s academia shifting from a passive actor purely focused on research to active participants in the country’s ambitions for global technology leadership. 

“Chinese universities were rather disconnected around twenty years ago, but today they have seamlessly integrated and caught up with the rest of the world in terms of advanced research publications,” he explains. “There was also a realisation that academia should work together with industry to really deploy real-world systems and have their work integrated into industry products.”

“That’s why in recent years, you see Chinese universities becoming actively involved in industry product development and you’ll see many university professors serving as advisors, CEOs, or chief scientists in the private sector.” 

A future shaped by the edge

Eight years ago, Chinese premier Xi Jinping told the first meeting of the country’s Central Cyberspace Commission that “information mastery has become an important symbol of national soft power and competitiveness” and that it was imperative for China to “strengthen independent innovation in core technologies and infrastructure construction”. In 2022, it appears that the country’s technology industry has made significant strides towards realising those ambitions. 

And there are signs that it will continue to rapidly advance. The state news agency Xinhua recently announced that the government will “accelerate the construction of major new infrastructure projects” that include 5G deployments, off the back of a period of economic recovery. 

Looking ahead, the Linux Foundation forecasts that 38% of the global infrastructure for edge computing will be in the Asia Pacific by 2028, with countries such as China, Japan and South Korea predicted to be significant players in its adoption across the region. Western European states are also predicted to be major contributors with 29% of global edge infrastructure, while the US will have a 21% share, according to the report. 

Spalding warns that China’s dominance in edge computing technologies and 5G has worrying implications for the rest of the world. State surveillance is a significant driver for edge computing in China, he believes. "They already use a lot of cameras at the edge for their surveillance state," he explains. "Those cameras need to be powered by AI, and that AI needs to be powered by edge processing."

Given China's head start in 5G and edge, its culture of surveillance could set the direction for the technology's evolution. Western companies such as Meta, Apple, Netflix and Google shaped the global digital economy by establishing norms for the use of personal data to target advertising, he explains. Now, he predicts, Chinese corporations like Alibaba, Baidu, Huawei and ZTE are shaping the future direction of surveillance technologies underpinned by edge computing. 

“What does that mean from a national security perspective when you have technologies that are designed to support a surveillance state and to basically diminish the ideas of individual liberty, privacy and the rule of law?” he says. “These are the tools that are going to proliferate into other economies and other societies and certainly they're going to be adopted by countries like Russia and Iran and North Korea.”

“But increasingly, there are also going into democracies to help those governments control their populations. That's really, I think, the danger.”

Home page image China Mobile Communications Group Tibet

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