Economy Lounge Technology

How America’s ban on Huawei has altered the digital future forever!

//A major scientific society the New York City-based Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE)  has banned employees of Huawei, the Chinese communications giant, from reviewing submissions to its journals because of U.S. government sanctions against the company//

[Update 2nd June 2019: Following the clarification from the U.S. Department of Commerce on the applicability of these export control restrictions, IEEE Lifts Restrictions on Editorial and Peer Review Activities. This is a welcome move, but the scar and fear that’s been left behind are going to take a long time to heal.]

This news makes me angry, sad and disillusioned. A scientific body like IEEE, of which I am a Senior Member, being made to do this by a national government (USA) is unfortunate and sets a dangerous precedent. Most of what I believed in when I was growing up, is being torn apart by this single act of Mr Donald J Trump‘s presidency. Let me explain, and, you need to bear with me for a slightly tangled post.

In the early 1980s, the world that I grew up in was divided by the cold-war with India being closer to the Soviet Union – which at the time for kids of my age meant premium books from NCBH for throwaway prices (which I suppose were heavily subsidised by the USSR as part of their propaganda). Then came the fall of the Berlin wall, the breakup of the Soviet Union, Economic Liberation of India, and the arrival of the world wide web.

Being an electronics and later software enthusiast, my technology skills were shaped by the writings of American technologists starting from Peter Norton (Inside the IBM PC – a full copy is here), Bill Gates (The Road Ahead) and Nicholas Negroponte (Being Digital).

I had grown up hearing the story of my grandfather starting a publishing company in 1929 and I had seen my father’s unwavering integrity and ethics in action for fifty years when he was running the business, but my learnings about modern businesses came undeniably from American CEOs like Sam Walton (Made in America), Jack Welch (Winning and Straight from the Gut), Louis V. Gerstner Jr. (Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?), Andrew Grove (Only the Paranoid Survive) and the publications like Harvard Business Review. My dreams about the future were shaped by Science fictions like Star Trek and Back to the future that came from Hollywood. In the twenty years, I had run my company, the majority of the business came from American firms. In short, the US had been my professional beacon which also meant my economic beliefs were for Free Trade and open borders.

Coming to Mr Trump, in 2008, I read his book “Think Big and Kick Ass” which was published in that year, I liked his boldness and picked up a few lessons on why you need to stop thinking small. In the first two years of his presidency, as the critics were complaining about his policies, I have reminded myself that he was the “President” of the United States of America and not of the entire free (whatever that means nowadays) world – his duty was only to the voters in the USA for whom he was getting results like the lowest unemployment rate and GDP growth. But with his recent trade war waged against China and Chinese firms like Huawei, which seems to be breaking all the conventions (and rules) that America championed after WWII, the country has lost its moral high ground in preaching openness and freedom.

I sympathised with American firms like Google, Facebook and Amazon when they were blocked by China in order to assert control and enforce censorship – acts of Trump’s administration this year vindicates Chinese fears that America can’t be trusted and they will pull the plug anytime it suits them. The USA now risks of appearing to be an opportunistic nation just like all the others in the course of history.

As an eternal optimist, I feel that all is not lost. 2019 is different from the 2000s, the software world today is dominated by opensource which gives everyone equal access. The recent events have opened a great opportunity for collaboration between China, India and Europe to develop an alternate narration in advancing the digital future. I see Europe playing an important role here, they have shown the way to rest of the world with initiatives like GDPR. More importantly, their institutions have the academic pedigree in undertaking fundamental research in the areas of mathematics and science, and, can facilitate collaboration with their counterparts from China and India.

Lastly, India should continue to collaborate with the USA closely and with the rest of the world (as mentioned above) but have a strong backup plan for an eventuality. The backup plan should include significant investments in designing and building an indigenous (a word I thought I will never use) technology stack, right from the silicon to the AI algorithms that run on it, for our national security, just like we had built our own missile and rocket technologies in the past.

Footnote: In this context, efforts like IIT Madras’ Shakti (fabricated within India in an ISRO lab) and India’s Signalchip funded by Zoho’s Sridhar Vembu are encouraging. I do have my doubts on the commercial viability of these, as CPU business needs a humungous scale for any profitability.

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