China Has Leapfrogged the U.S. in Key Technologies. Can a New Law Help? | Big Indy News
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China Has Leapfrogged the U.S. in Key Technologies. Can a New Law Help?

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In the weeks before the House and the Senate ended 13 months of arguments and passed the $280 billion CHIPS and Science Act, China’s main, state-supported chip maker cleared a major technological hurdle that delivered a bit of a shock to the world.

Experts are still assessing how China apparently leapfrogged ahead in its effort to manufacture a semiconductor whose circuits are of such tiny dimensions — about 10,000 times thinner than a human hair — that they rival those made in Taiwan, which supplies both China and the West. The Biden administration has gone to extraordinary lengths to keep the highly specialized equipment to make those chips out of Chinese hands, because progress in chip manufacturing is now scrutinized as a way to define national power — much the same way nuclear tests or precision-guided missiles were during a previous cold war.

No one yet knows whether China can exploit the breakthrough on a large scale; that may take years. But one lesson seemed clear: While Congress debated and amended and argued over whether and how to support American chip makers and a broad range of research in other technologies — from advanced batteries to robotics and quantum computing — China was surging ahead, betting it would take Washington years to get its act together.

“Our Congress is working at political speed,” said Eric Schmidt, the former Google chief executive who went on to lead the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, which warned last year of the huge dangers of falling far behind in a “foundational” technology like advanced semiconductor manufacturing in a world of vulnerable supply chains. “The Chinese government is working at commercial speed.”

In China, the drive to catch up and manufacture the most advanced chips is part of the “Made in China 2025” program. That effort began in 2015. While few in Congress want to concede the point, the technologies that the United States will be funding when President Biden signs the bill, as he promised to do on Thursday, largely replicate the Chinese list.

It is classic industrial policy, though leaders in both parties are avoiding the term. The words convey a sense of state-controlled planning that is antithetical to most Republicans and showers direct support and tax credits on some of America’s largest companies, which makes some Democrats shake with anger.

But 2025 isn’t very far away, meaning the money will just get flowing while Chinese and other competitors move on to their next set of goals. Meanwhile, the American semiconductor industry has withered, to the point where none of the most advanced chips are made in the United States, even though the fundamental technology was born here and gave Silicon Valley its name.

None of this means American competitiveness is doomed. Just as Japan once seemed as if it was the 10-foot-tall technological giant in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but then missed some of the biggest breakthroughs in mobile computing and Windows operating systems and even chip-making, China is discovering that money alone does not guarantee technological dominance. But it helps.

It has taken Congress far longer to come to the same conclusion. Still, China has turned out to be one of the few issues on which Republicans and Democrats can come together — the bill passed the House 243 to 187, with one abstention, on Thursday. Twenty-four Republicans voted in favor, notable because G.O.P. leaders were urging their members to oppose the bill after the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, and Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia announced a surprise deal on climate, energy and taxes on Wednesday.

China immediately denounced the bill as an isolationist move by Americans intent on freeing themselves from dependence on foreign technology — a strategy called “decoupling” that China itself is trying to replicate.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, told reporters in Beijing that “no restriction or suppression will hold back” Chinese progress, a clear reference to the American and European efforts to deny China the technology that would speed its technological independence.

But the big question is whether Congress’s slowness to wake up to America’s competitive shortcomings has doomed the effort. While Mr. Biden and lawmakers tried to build support for the bill by describing the chips found in everything from refrigerators to thermostats to cars as the “oil” of the 21st century, the phrase was already hackneyed three decades ago.

In the late 1980s, Andrew S. Grove, one of the pioneers of Silicon Valley and an early leader of Intel Corporation, warned of the danger of the United States becoming a “techno-colony” of Japan.

The Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company produces roughly 90 percent of the most advanced semiconductors. It sells them to both China and the United States.

And while Taiwan Semiconductor and Samsung are building new manufacturing facilities in the United States, responding to political pressure to address American supply-chain worries, the net result will be that only a single-digit percentage of its production will be on American soil.

“Our dependence on Taiwan for the sophisticated chips is untenable and unsafe,” the commerce secretary, Gina Raimondo, noted last week at the Aspen Security Forum. With demand for more sophisticated chips growing — every new generation of cars requires more and more semiconductors — “we don’t have enough domestic supply.”

The bill’s $52 billion in federal subsidies, she argued, would be bolstered by private money and turn into “hundreds of billions” in investments. She was essentially using the argument that the federal government has long used to justify incentives to defense contractors. Politicians knew that underwriting risky new spy satellite technology, or stealthy drones, was an easier sell in Congress if described as critical defense spending instead of industrial policy.

But now the logic is turned on its head. What the defense contractors need is the most advanced commercial chips — not only for F-35s, but for artificial intelligence systems that one day may change the nature of the battlefield. The old distinctions between military and commercial technology have largely eroded. That is why, to get the bill through, the administration even brought Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III into the pressure campaign, arguing that he couldn’t rely on foreign suppliers for the weapons of the future.

The bill’s authors say that while they are late to the task of rebuilding the industry, starting today is better than continuing to watch the American lead erode. Senator Todd Young said that while China’s recent advance was “sobering,” he didn’t think there was “anyone that can out-innovate the United States of America if we mobilize our many resources.”

America’s other advantage is “our relationships, economic and geopolitical, with other countries,” said Mr. Young, an Indiana Republican. “China has no friends; they have vassal states.”

Innovation has been an American strong suit; the microprocessor was invented here. But time and again, the American vulnerability is in manufacturing. And China isn’t the only competitor. To extract cash out of Congress, Intel and others noted that Germany and other allies were trying to lure it to build “fabs” — the airtight, spotless manufacturing centers for chips — on their own territory.

But in the end it was China that drove the votes.

One of the first assessments of the new Chinese chip, made by Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation, came from researchers at a firm called TechInsights.

After reverse-engineering the Chinese-made chip, they concluded that it used circuitry that was only seven nanometers wide. As recently as 2020, Chinese manufacturers had struggled to get below 40 nanometers.

Experts say the chip, made for mining cryptocurrency, may have been based on, or stolen from, Taiwan Semiconductor. For now, Taiwan Semiconductor remains the most important single manufacturer in the world, and its sprawling facilities near Taipei may be the island’s greatest protection against invasion. China can’t afford to risk its destruction. And the United States can’t afford for it to be destroyed.

But that delicate balance won’t last forever. So China has both a commercial and a geopolitical motive to make the world’s fastest chips, and the United States has a competitive motive to keep Beijing from getting the technology to do so. It is the ultimate 21st-century arms race.

In the old Cold War, the one against the Soviet Union a generation ago, “the government could afford to sit on the sidelines” and hope private industry would invest, Mr. Schumer said on Wednesday. Now, he said, “we can’t afford to sit on the sidelines.”

Catie Edmondson contributed reporting.

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Most Video Game Reboots Stink. But Not the Latest Final Fantasy.

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One of the most anticipated video games of the year isn’t really new. It’s 15 years old. And it’s a prequel to a game that’s even older.

The new game is Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII Reunion, set for release next week. It’s a reboot of a mobile game with almost the same name from 2007, except with nicer graphics and sped-up battles so it can be resold for modern systems, including new PlayStation, Xbox and Nintendo consoles. It’s also a prequel to yet another game reboot, 2020’s Final Fantasy VII Remake.

If that sounds confusing, that’s because it is. Video game reboots are nothing new, and, boy, there have been a lot of them lately. This year, game studios have released refreshed versions of popular titles including The Last of Us, Marvel’s Spider-Man and Tactics Ogre, among others.

With Reunion, the maker of Final Fantasy, Square Enix, is capitalizing on the enterprise of nostalgia. Final Fantasy, originally released in 1987, became a blockbuster when the game’s seventh installment debuted in 1997. In that game, players took on the role of Cloud, an angsty mercenary working with a group of misfits to prevent the apocalypse.

Since then, Final Fantasy VII has become one of the most influential games in history, spawning spinoffs, animated movies and fan fiction. The game has been rereleased at least half a dozen times on every major gaming platform, including PCs, tablets and smartphones. It’s a juggernaut — and Reunion is playing its part in keeping that franchise going.

Most video game reboots don’t do much more than bump up the resolution of the graphics to look better on new TVs, but Reunion is different. With completely overhauled visuals and smoother gameplay, it is much better than the original. It’s a strong example of how to do a reboot with justice and to keep a well-established title going with a very safe bet.

“We can see the audience for these characters and the Final Fantasy VII franchise better than if we were to do something that didn’t already have a certain amount of recognition,” said Yoshinori Kitase, Square Enix’s executive producer of Reunion, through a translator.

I finished Reunion last week after playing part of the original Crisis Core. The changes in the battles and visuals transformed the game from a so-so installment into a must-play episode of Final Fantasy, whose cachet in the gaming world rivals that of “Star Wars” in pop culture. (To put it another way, Reunion is Final Fantasy’s “Rogue One” — the prequel we deserve.)

Reunion is also an extreme approach to a “remaster,” which is video game parlance for an old game whose graphics have been scaled up to look better on new TVs. Since Square Enix originally released Crisis Core for a mobile gaming device, the obsolete PlayStation Portable, the graphics had to be redone for modern systems.

Now the pixelated, expressionless faces of characters in the original have been replaced with detailed, lifelike mugs; the drab backgrounds of city streets and dungeons have become rich with color and texture.

The game’s producers also took an extra step to fix the most annoying aspect of the original — the battle system — to make progressing through the game more fast-paced and fun. That’s a smart fix in an era when people have unlimited options for other stuff to do if they get bored with a video game.

Square Enix otherwise left Crisis Core’s story intact, including its script carried by voice actors. The game centers on Zack Fair, a member of the elite military force, Soldier, which is controlled by Shinra, the world-dominating electric power company.

Zack is tasked with tracking down a pair of comrades who have deserted Shinra. It’s not a spoiler to say our hero meets a tragic end, a fact that has been well known by fans of the franchise for more than two decades. But the prequel tells the story of how his legacy contributed to the epic events of Final Fantasy VII.

Yet while Reunion’s graphics are a marked improvement from the original, the game is not nearly as polished or as highly produced as its sibling, Final Fantasy VII Remake.

That’s because Reunion is essentially an intermission for a much bigger show. Its main purpose, according to Square Enix, is to keep gamers hooked on the franchise in between releases of Final Fantasy VII Remake, which sold 3.5 million copies in its first three days in 2020, making it one of the fastest-selling PlayStation 4 games. That remake is being spread out into installments that will come out every two to three years. (Episode 2 is expected for release next winter, nearly three years after Episode 1, and the series will conclude with Episode 3.)

“It’s going to be a long wait,” Mr. Yoshinori said. “So we want to make sure to keep those fans on board and interested.”

Even so, this intermission is a crowd pleaser. The game gives lots of airtime to Aerith, Sephiroth and Cloud, the stars of Final Fantasy VII, fleshing out these characters and setting the stage for the epic game.

In terms of gameplay, Reunion takes a novel approach to battles. Players can freely control Zack in 3-D space, swinging his giant sword at a monster and dodging its attacks in between nuking it with magic spells. This feels more stimulating than the old-school “turn-based” system, in which players exchanged blows with an enemy by pressing a button to trigger an action and then waiting for the enemy to take its turn.

The biggest problem with the original Crisis Core’s battle system was the Digital Mind Wave, which is essentially a slot machine constantly running in the background of each fight. When the reels land on certain combinations, special attacks are triggered that can obliterate enemies.

In the original, the slot machine was noisy and downright obnoxious, interrupting a battle to play its animations. Fortunately, it has been toned down to silently run in the background, and when the slot machine unlocks a bonus, players can press a button to activate it whenever they wish and even skip the animations.

Reunion also streamlines the experience of grinding, which traditionally involves doing repetitious (often mind-numbing) fights to get strong enough to proceed through the game. Instead of wandering around and fighting random enemies, players can embark on optional missions, which deploy Zack to eliminate a specific foe. In this process, players can level up and gather useful items and magic spells to aid them on their main journey.

In the end, it took me about 18 hours to complete the game, and I had fun (unlike my experience with the original Crisis Core, which I stopped playing after four hours because the battles were so tedious). My chief complaint is that the game was too easy. After completing a small number of optional missions, players will find themselves overpowered and vanquishing the game’s main villains in a few effortless blows.

Some gamers eager for brand-new titles may feel that releasing reboots is too easy for game makers like Square Enix. Mr. Yoshinori said the risk to reboots was that they could end up appealing to a single demographic of older fans. The company had originally intended to do a more modest refresh of Crisis Core with minor improvements to graphics, but once it became clear that Final Fantasy VII Remake had drawn in many new fans, the mission changed to attract those gamers, too.

“We decided midway through development that we had to up the game,” he said.

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Meta Oversight Board demands changes to “cross-check” program that protected Donald Trump

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Meta’s Oversight Board has released an in-depth report on Facebook and Instagram’s controversial cross-check system, calling on Meta to make the program “radically” more transparent and beef up its resources.

The semi-independent Oversight Board cited “several shortcomings” in cross-check, which provides a special moderation queue for high-profile public figures, including former president Donald Trump before his suspension from Facebook. It singled out a failure to make clear when accounts are protected by special cross-check status, as well as cases where rule-breaking material — particularly one case of non-consensual pornography — was left up for a prolonged period of time. And it criticized Meta for not keeping track of moderation statistics that might assess the accuracy of the program’s results.

“While Meta told the board that cross-check aims to advance Meta’s human rights commitments, we found that the program appears more directly structured to satisfy business concerns,” the report says. “The board understands that Meta is a business, but by providing extra protection to certain users selected largely according to business interests, cross-check allows content which would otherwise be removed quickly to remain up for a longer period, potentially causing harm.”

“It was protecting a limited number of people who didn’t even know that they were on the list.”

The report comes more than a year after The Wall Street Journal revealed details about cross-check publicly. Following its revelations, Meta asked the Oversight Board to evaluate the program, but the board complained that Meta had failed to provide important information about it, like details about its role in moderating Trump’s posts. Today’s announcement apparently follows months of back-and-forth between Meta and the Oversight Board, including the review of “thousands” of pages of internal documents, four briefings from the company, and a request for answers to 74 questions. The resulting document includes diagrams, statistics, and statements from Meta that help illuminate how it organized a multi-layered review program.

“It’s a small part of what Meta does, but I think that by spending this amount of time and looking into this [much] detail, it exposed something that’s a bit more systemic within the company,” Oversight Board member Alan Rusbridger tells The Verge. “I sincerely believe that there are a lot of people at Meta who do believe in the values of free speech and the values of protecting journalism and protecting people working in civil society. But the program that they had crafted wasn’t doing those things. It was protecting a limited number of people who didn’t even know that they were on the list.”

Cross-check is designed to prevent inappropriate takedowns of posts from a subset of users, sending those decisions through a set of human reviews instead of the normal AI-heavy moderation process. Its members (who, as Rusbringer notes, aren’t told they’re protected) includes journalists reporting from conflict zones and civic leaders whose statements are particularly newsworthy. It also covers “business partners” that include publishers, entertainers, companies, and charitable organizations.

According to statements from Meta that are quoted in the report, the program favors under-enforcing the company’s rules to avoid a “perception of censorship” or a bad experience for people who bring significant money and users to Facebook and Instagram. Meta says that on average it can take more than five days to make a call on a piece of content. A moderation backlog sometimes delays the decisions even further — at the longest, one piece of content remained in the queue for over seven months.

The Oversight Board has frequently criticized Meta for overzealously removing posts, particularly ones with political or artistic expression. But in this case, it expressed concern that Meta was allowing its business partnerships to overshadow real harm. A cross-check backlog, for instance, delayed a decision when Brazilian soccer player Neymar posted nude pictures of a woman who accused him of rape — and after the post, which was a clear violation of Meta’s rules, Neymar didn’t suffer the typical penalty of having his account deleted. The board notes that Neymar later signed an exclusive streaming deal with Meta.

Conversely, part of the problem is that ordinary users don’t get the same hands-on moderation, thanks to Facebook and Instagram’s massive scale. Meta told the Oversight Board that in October of 2021, it was performing 100 million enforcement actions on content every day. Many of these decisions are automated or given very cursory human review, since it’s a vast volume that would be difficult or impossible to coordinate across a purely human-powered moderation system. But the board says it’s not clear that Meta tracks or attempts to analyze the accuracy of the cross-check system compared with ordinary content moderation. If it did, the results could indicate that a lot of ordinary users’ content was probably being inaccurately flagged as violating the rules, or that Meta was under-enforcing its policies for high-profile users.

“My hope is that Meta will hold its nerve.”

The board made 32 recommendations to Meta. (As usual, Meta must respond to the recommendations within 60 days but is not bound to adopt them.) The recommendations include hiding posts that are marked as “high severity” violations while a review is underway, even when they’re posted by business partners. The board asks Meta to prioritize improving content moderation for “expression that is important for human rights,” adopting a special queue for this content that is separate from Meta’s business partners. It asks Meta to set out “clear, public criteria” for who is included on cross-check lists — and in some cases, like state actors and business partners, to publicly mark that status.

Some of these recommendations, like the public marking of accounts, are policy decisions that likely wouldn’t require significant extra resources. But Rusbridger acknowledges that others — like eliminating the backlog for cross-check — would require a “substantial” expansion of Meta’s moderation force. And the report arrives amid a period of austerity for Meta; last month, the company laid off around 13 percent of its workforce.

Rusbridger expresses hope that Meta will still prioritize content moderation alongside “harder” technical programs, even as it tightens its belt. “My hope is that Meta will hold its nerve,” he says. “Tempting as it is to sort of cut the ‘soft’ areas, I think in the long term, they must realize that’s not a very wise thing to do.”

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Are You Applying for Tech Jobs or Internships? We Want to Hear About It.

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November was a bleak month for tech workers. Meta, Amazon, Lyft, Stripe and Twitter laid off thousands of employees. Microsoft and Google announced hiring slowdowns.

The cutbacks and hiring freezes affected not only veteran employees. Some tech companies laid off recent college graduates or rescinded their job offers. Some firms are also cutting their summer internship programs for college students next year.

The industry slowdown is sending shock waves through a generation of computer science and data science students who spent years preparing themselves for careers at the largest tech companies. Many recent grads and college seniors are now seeking tech jobs outside the tech industry, in industries like retail, banking and finance.

I’m a technology reporter at The New York Times who investigates the societal impacts of tech innovations and tech company business practices. And I am reporting a story about the implications of the industry jobs slowdown for people in the early stages of their tech careers.

If you are a college student or recent grad applying for tech internships or jobs, I’d like to hear from you.

We may use your contact information to follow up with you. If we publish your submission, we will not include your name without first contacting you and obtaining your permission.

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