5g

Huawei, 5G, and the Man Who Conquered Noise

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WIRED

STEVEN LEVYBUSINESS11.16.2020 06:00 AM

How an obscure Turkish scientist’s obscure theoretical breakthrough helped the Chinese tech giant gain control of the future. US telecoms never had a chance.

Link https://www.wired.com/story/huawei-5g-polar-codes-data-breakthrough/?utm_campaign=Newsletters&utm_source=sendgrid&utm_medium=email

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ILLUSTRATION: MOJO WANG

“THE CITY OF Shenzhen in July. The weather is hot, the trees brimming with life … ”

So begins the baritone voice-over in a video shot in the summer of 2018 by the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei and posted to YouTube. It chronicles a corporate event in the slightly corny style of a 1960s educational film, starting with aerial drone footage of Huawei’s campus—an island of lush greenery surrounded by the high-rise buildings of the city known as China’s Silicon Valley. A spirited orchestral version of Beethoven’s “Turkish March” plays as a town car wends its way through the campus, pulling up to a stately white structure mixing classical Greek architecture and the wide overhanging rooftops of China’s great pagodas. There’s a bit of the White House tossed in too.

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This feature appears in the December 2020/January 2021 issue. Subscribe to WIRED. ILLUSTRATION: CARL DE TORRES, STORYTK

Two footmen dressed in white approach the vehicle as it arrives. One opens the rear door. Guo Ping, one of Huawei’s rotating chairmen, steps forward and extends a hand as the guest emerges. After walking a red carpet, the two men enter the magnificent marble-floored building, ascend a stairway, and pass through French doors to a palatial ballroom. Several hundred people arise from their chairs and clap wildly. The guest is welcomed by Huawei’s founder, Ren Zhengfei, whose sky-blue blazer and white khakis signify that he has attained the power to wear whatever the hell he wants.

After some serious speechifying by a procession of dark-suited executives, Ren—who is China’s Bill Gates, Lee Iacocca, and Warren Buffett rolled into one—comes to the podium. Three young women dressed in white uniforms enter the room, swinging their arms military style as they march to the stage, then about-face in unison as one holds out a framed gold medal the size of a salad plate. Embedded with a red Baccarat crystal, it depicts the Goddess of Victory and was manufactured by the Monnaie de Paris. Ren is almost glowing as he presents the medal to the visitor.

This honored guest is not a world leader, a billionaire magnate, nor a war hero. He is a relatively unknown Turkish academic named Erdal Arıkan. Throughout the ceremony he has been sitting stiffly, frozen in his ill-fitting suit, as if he were an ordinary theatergoer suddenly thrust into the leading role on a Broadway stage.Related Stories

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Arıkan isn’t exactly ordinary. Ten years earlier, he’d made a major discovery in the field of information theory. Huawei then plucked his theoretical breakthrough from academic obscurity and, with large investments and top engineering talent, fashioned it into something of value in the realm of commerce. The company then muscled and negotiated to get that innovation into something so big it could not be denied: the basic 5G technology now being rolled out all over the world.

Huawei’s rise over the past 30 years has been heralded in China as a triumph of smarts, sweat, and grit. Perhaps no company is more beloved at home—and more vilified by the United States. That’s at least in part because Huawei’s ascent also bears the fingerprints of China’s nationalistic industrial policy and an alleged penchant for intellectual property theft; the US Department of Justice has charged the company with a sweeping conspiracy of misappropriation, infringement, obstruction, and lies. As of press time, Ren Zhengfei’s daughter was under house arrest in Vancouver, fighting extradition to the US for allegedly violating a ban against trading with Iran. The US government has banned Huawei’s 5G products and has been lobbying other countries to do the same. Huawei denies the charges; Ren calls them political.

Huawei is settling the score in its own way. One of the world’s great technology powers, it nonetheless suffers from an inferiority complex. Despite spending billions on research and science, it can’t get the respect and recognition of its Western peers. Much like China itself. So when Ren handed the solid-gold medal—crafted by the French mint!—to Erdal Arıkan, he was sticking his thumb in their eye.

The pageant was the coming of age of a company and a nation. And to understand why, we have to learn the story of polar codes.

ERDAL ARIKAN WAS born in 1958 and grew up in Western Turkey, the son of a doctor and a homemaker. He loved science. When he was a teenager, his father remarked that, in his profession, two plus two did not always equal four. This fuzziness disturbed young Erdal; he decided against a career in medicine. He found comfort in engineering and the certainty of its mathematical outcomes. “I like things that have some precision,” he says. “You do calculations and things turn out as you calculate it.”

Arıkan entered the electrical engineering program at Middle East Technical University. But in 1977, partway through his first year, the country was gripped by political violence, and students boycotted the university. Arıkan wanted to study, and because of his excellent test scores he managed to transfer to CalTech, one of the world’s top science-oriented institutions, in Pasadena, California. He found the US to be a strange and wonderful country. Within his first few days, he was in an orientation session addressed by legendary physicist Richard Feynman. It was like being blessed by a saint.

Arıkan devoured his courses, especially in information theory. The field was still young, launched in 1948 by Claude Shannon, who wrote its seminal paper while he was at Bell Labs; he would later become a revered MIT professor. Shannon’s achievement was to understand how the hitherto fuzzy concept of information could be quantified, creating a discipline that expanded the view of communication and data storage. By publishing a general mathematical theory of information—almost as if Einstein had invented physics and come up with relativity in one swoop—Shannon set a foundation for the internet, mobile communications, and everything else in the digital age. The subject fascinated Arıkan, who chose MIT for graduate studies. There was one reason: “Bob Gallager was there,” he says.

Robert Gallager had written the textbook on information theory. He had also been mentored by Shannon’s successor. In the metrics of the field, that put him two steps from God. “So I said, if I am going to do information theory,” Arıkan says, “MIT is the place to go.”

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By the time Arıkan arrived at MIT, in 1981, Gallager had shifted his focus and was concentrating on how data networks operated. Arıkan was trembling when he went to Gallager’s office for the first time. The professor gave him a paper about packet radio networks. “I was pushing him to move from strict information theory to looking at network problems,” Gallager says. “It was becoming very obvious to everyone that sending data from one place to another was not the whole story—you really had to have a system.”

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Erdal Arıkan spent 20 years on a data transmission problem. He called the solution polar codes. PHOTOGRAPH: BRADLEY SECKER

Arıkan devoted the next year to learning about networks, but he never gave up on his passion for information science. What gripped him most was solving a challenge that Shannon himself had spelled out in his 1948 paper: how to transport accurate information at high speed while defeating the inevitable “noise”—undesirable alterations of the message—introduced in the process of moving all those bits. The problem was known as channel capacity. According to Shannon, every communications channel had a kind of speed limit for transmitting information reliably. This as-yet-unattained theoretical boundary was referred to as the Shannon limit.

Gallager had wrestled with the Shannon limit early in his career, and he got close. His much celebrated theoretical approach was something he called low-density parity-check codes, or LDPC, which were, in simplest terms, a high-speed method of correcting errors on the fly. While the mathematics of LDPC were innovative, Gallager understood at the time that it wasn’t commercially viable. “It was just too complicated for the cost of the logical operations that were needed,” Gallager says now. Gallager and others at MIT figured that they had gotten as close to the Shannon limit as one could get, and he moved on. At MIT in the 1980s, the excitement about information theory had waned.

But not for Arıkan. He wanted to solve the problem that stood in the way of reaching the Shannon limit. Even as he pursued his thesis on the networking problem that Gallager had pointed him to, he seized on a piece that included error correction. “When you do error-correction coding, you are in Shannon theory,” he says.

Arıkan finished his doctoral thesis in 1986, and after a brief stint at the University of Illinois he returned to Turkey to join the country’s first private, nonprofit research institution, Bilkent University, located on the outskirts of Ankara. Arıkan helped establish its engineering school. He taught classes. He published papers. But Bilkent also allowed him to pursue his potentially fruitless battle with the Shannon limit. “The best people are in the US, but why aren’t they working for 10 years, 20 years on the same problem?” he said. “Because they wouldn’t be able to get tenure; they wouldn’t be able to get research funding.” Rather than advancing his field in tiny increments, he went on a monumental quest. It would be his work for the next 20 years.

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In December 2005 he had a kind of eureka moment. Spurred by a question posed in a three-page dispatch written in 1965 by a Russian information scientist, Arıkan reframed the problem for himself. “The key to discoveries is to look at those places where there is still a paradox,” Arıkan says. “It’s like the tip of an iceberg. If there is a point of dissatisfaction, take a closer look at it. You are likely to find a treasure trove underneath.”

Arıkan’s goal was to transmit messages accurately over a noisy channel at the fastest possible speed. The key word is accurately. If you don’t care about accuracy, you can send messages unfettered. But if you want the recipient to get the same data that you sent, you have to insert some redundancy into the message. That gives the recipient a way to cross-check the message to make sure it’s what you sent. Inevitably, that extra cross-checking slows things down. This is known as the channel coding problem. The greater the amount of noise, the more added redundancy is needed to protect the message. And the more redundancy you add, the slower the rate of transmission becomes. The coding problem tries to defeat that trade-off and find ways to achieve reliable transmission of information at the fastest possible rate. The optimum rate would be the Shannon limit: channel coding nirvana.

“The key to discoveries is to look at those places where there is still a paradox. It’s like the tip of an iceberg. If there is a point of dissatisfaction, take a closer look at it.”

ERDAL ARIKAN

Arıkan’s new solution was to create near-perfect channels from ordinary channels by a process he called “channel polarization.” Noise would be transferred from one channel to a copy of the same channel to create a cleaner copy and a dirtier one. After a recursive series of such steps, two sets of channels emerge, one set being extremely noisy, the other being almost noise-free. The channels that are scrubbed of noise, in theory, can attain the Shannon limit. He dubbed his solution polar codes. It’s as if the noise was banished to the North Pole, allowing for pristine communications at the South Pole.

After this discovery, Arıkan spent two more years refining the details. He had read that before Shannon released his famous paper on information theory, his supervisor at Bell Labs would pop by and ask if the researcher had anything new. “Shannon never mentioned information theory,” says Arıkan with a laugh. “He kept his work undercover. He didn’t disclose it.” That was also Arıkan’s MO. “I had the luxury of knowing that no other person in the world was working on this problem,” Arıkan says, “because it was not a fashionable subject.”

In 2008, three years after his eureka moment, Arıkan finally presented his work. He had understood its importance all along. Over the years, whenever he traveled, he would leave his unpublished manuscript in two envelopes addressed to “top colleagues whom I trusted,” with the order to mail them “if I don’t come back.” In 2009 he published his definitive paper in the field’s top journal, IEEE Transactions on Information Theory. It didn’t exactly make him a household name, but within the small community of information theorists, polar codes were a sensation. Arıkan traveled to the US to give a series of lectures. (You can see them on YouTube; they are not for the mathematically fainthearted. The students look a bit bored.)

Arıkan was justifiably proud of his accomplishment, but he didn’t think of polar codes as something with practical value. It was a theoretical solution that, even if implemented, seemed unlikely to rival the error-correction codes already in place. He didn’t even bother to get a patent.

IN 1987, AROUND the time Arıkan returned to Turkey, Ren Zhengfei, a 44-year-old former military engineer, began a company that traded telecom equipment. He called it Huawei, which translates roughly to “China has a promising future.” Ren tried to distinguish his company by maintaining a fanatical devotion to customer service.

Frustrated with the unreliability of suppliers, Ren decided that Huawei would manufacture its own systems. Thus began a long process of building Huawei into a company that built and sold telecom equipment all along the chain, from base stations to handsets, and did so not only inside China but across the globe.

The rise of Huawei is painstakingly rendered in a small library of self-aggrandizing literature that the company publishes, including several volumes of quotes from its founder. The theme of this opus is hard to miss, expressed in a variety of fighting analogies. In one such description, Tian Tao, the company’s authorized Boswell, quotes Ren on how the company competed against the powerful international “elephants” that once dominated the field. “Of course, Huawei is no match for an elephant, so it has to adopt the qualities of wolves: a keen sense of smell, a strong competitive nature, a pack mentality, and a spirit of sacrifice.”

The hagiographies omit some key details about how the wolf got along. For one, they dramatically underplay the role of the Chinese government, which in the 1990s offered loans and other financial support, in addition to policies that favored Chinese telecom companies over foreign ones. (In a rare moment of candor on this issue, Ren himself admitted in an interview that Huawei would not exist if not for government support.) With the government behind them, Chinese companies like Huawei and its domestic rival ZTE came to dominate the national telecom equipment market. Huawei had become the elephant.

Another subject one does not encounter in the company’s library is the alleged use of stolen intellectual property, a charge the company denies. “If you read the Western media about Huawei, you will find plenty of people who say that everything from Huawei was begged, borrowed, or stolen. And there is absolutely no truth in that,” says Brian Chamberlin, an executive adviser for Huawei’s carrier group. But in one notorious 2003 case, Huawei admitted using router software copied from Cisco, though it insisted the use was very limited, and the sides negotiated a settlement that was “mutually beneficial.” More recently, in February, the US Department of Justice filed a suit against the company charging it with “grow[ing] the worldwide business of Huawei … through the deliberate and repeated misappropriation of intellectual property.” The indictment alleges Huawei has been engaging in these practices since at least 2000.

The Chinese government also provided support to help Huawei gain a foothold overseas, offering loans to customers that made Huawei’s products more appealing. One of Huawei’s biggest foreign competitors was Nortel, the dominant North American telecom company based in Canada. But Nortel’s business was struggling just at a time when competition from Chinese products was intensifying. Then, in 2004, a Nortel security specialist named Brian Shields discovered that computers based in China, using passwords of Nortel executives, had been downloading hundreds of documents from the company. “There’s nothing they couldn’t have gotten at,” Shields says. Though no one ever publicly identified the hackers, and Ren denied any Huawei involvement, the episode added to the suspicion in the West that Huawei’s success was not always achieved on the up and up.

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ILLUSTRATION: MOJO WANG

In 2009, Nortel filed for bankruptcy. It had failed to adapt, disappointed its customers, and was ill-prepared to respond to new Chinese competition. And there was that hack. Huawei seized the moment. Nortel’s most valuable asset was the unmatched talent in its Ottawa research lab, known as the Canadian equivalent of the legendary Bell Labs. For years, Huawei had been building up its research capacity, trying to shed its reputation as a low-cost provider whose tech came from purloining the discoveries of others. It had a number of R&D labs around the world. Now, with Nortel’s demise, it could pursue a bigger prize than market share: technical mastery. And respect.

The head of research at Nortel’s lab in Ottawa, Wen Tong, grew up in China and joined Nortel’s wireless lab in 1995 after earning a doctorate at Concordia University in Montreal. He had contributed to every generation of mobile technology and held 470 patents in the US. If telecommunications companies staged a research scientist draft in 2009, Wen Tong would have been a first-round pick. Now he was a free agent, and Google, Intel, and others courted him.

Tong picked Huawei. He wanted to keep his networking scientists together, and the team didn’t want to leave Canada. The Chinese company was happy to recruit the group and let them stay in place. Huawei also promised them freedom to attack the signature challenge for networking science in the 21st century: creating the infrastructure for 5G. In this iteration of mobile platforms, billions of mobile devices would seamlessly connect to networks. It promised to transform the world in ways even the scientists could not imagine, and it would mean vast fortunes for those who produced the technology. The race for patents would be intense, a matter not only of profit but also national pride.

Not long after Tong joined Huawei, in 2009, a research paper came to his attention. It was Erdal Arıkan’s discovery of polar codes. Tong had helped produce the technology that provided the radio-transmission error correction for the current standard, known as turbo codes. He thought the polar codes concept could be its replacement in 5G. But the obstacles were considerable, and Tong originally couldn’t interest his Canadian researchers in attacking the problem. Then, in 2012, Huawei asked Tong to restructure its communications lab in China. He took the opportunity to assign several smart young engineers to work on polar codes. It involved the none-too-certain process of taking a mathematical theory and making it actually work in practical design, but they made progress and the team grew. With each innovation, Huawei rushed to the patent office.

In 2013, Wen Tong asked Huawei’s investment board for $600 million for 5G research. “Very simple,” Tong says. “20 minutes, and they decided.” The answer was yes, and a good deal of that money went into polar codes. After Huawei came up with software that implemented the theory, the work shifted to testing and iterating. Eventually hundreds of engineers were involved.

Tong was not the only information scientist who had seen Arıkan’s paper. Alexander Vardy of the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego says the paper achieved “something that people were trying to do for 60 years.” The challenge was that polar codes were not suited for 5G’s short blocklengths—the amount of 0s and 1s strung together. Vardy and his postdoc, Ido Tal of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, modified the error-correcting technology so it outperformed other state-of-the-art codes when applied to 5G’s short blocklengths. Vardy says he presented his findings in a conference in 2011. “Huawei was there in the audience, and right after that they ran with it,” he says, seemingly without rancor. (UC San Diego owns Vardy and Tal’s patent and has licensed it to Samsung on a nonexclusive basis.)

Today Huawei holds more than two-thirds of the polar code patent “families”—10 times as many as its nearest competitor. The general feeling in the field, Vardy said, was that Huawei “invested a lot of research time and effort into developing this idea.” It seemed “all the other companies were at least a few years behind.”

But all that work and all those patents would be wasted if the technology didn’t fit into the 5G platform. “It has to be adopted by everybody,” Tong says. “You have to convince the entire industry that this is good for 5G.”

If polar codes were to be the symbol of Huawei’s superiority, there was one more hurdle: “I had the responsibility,” Wen Tong says, “to make it a standard.”

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IN SPORTS, COMPETITION is fierce, but teams have to agree on some basics—like the dimensions of a playing field. Likewise, in the telecommunications industry, all the players must come together to agree on the particulars of a common platform. Reaching consensus on the parts of a mobile platform is complicated. Decisions have to be made about dozens of specifications for transmission speeds, radio frequencies, security architecture, and the like. To make that happen, engineers gather in a series of meetings every year to choose which new technologies will be deemed standard in the next generation.

The stakes are high: The companies that provide the fundamental technology for 5G will be embedded in a global communications system for years to come. So in the background are financial, nationalistic, and even geopolitical considerations. “From the year 2001 to the present—three administrations—not enough attention has been paid to this,” says Reed Hundt, a former Federal Communications Commission chair during the Clinton administration. Hundt is one of a number of current and former officials alarmed that the United States has no equivalent to Huawei—that is, a major telecommunications company that both develops next-generation technology and builds it into equipment. “In Europe, they have an Ericsson. In Japan, they have companies. And in China, they have not just Huawei but also ZTE. But Huawei is the one that covers the whole range of products.” All of this made Huawei’s 5G standards bid an alarming prospect. “Huawei’s IP and standards are the wedge they intend to use to pry open the Western computing world,” Hundt says.

The body that develops 5G standards, the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), is an international umbrella organization of various telecommunications groups. In 2016, it made a key decision on what was called 5G New Radio standards—the part that helped determine how data would be sent over 5G and how it would be checked for accuracy. After spending millions, undergoing years of testing, and filing for multiple patents, Huawei was not going to pull punches at the critical juncture. It needed the certification of an official standard to cement its claim.

The problem was that reasonable people argued that other techniques would work just as well as polar codes to achieve error correction in the new framework. Some suggested that a revamp of the current 4G protocol, turbo codes, would be sufficient. Others, notably San Diego-based Qualcomm, which makes chipsets for mobile technology, liked a third option: Robert Gallager’s old LDPC idea, the one that had nearly reached the Shannon limit and had inspired Arıkan on his own intellectual journey.

Since the early 1960s, when Gallager proposed LDPC, technology had improved and the cost of commercial production was no longer prohibitive. Qualcomm’s R&D team developed it for 5G. Though Erdal Arıkan did not know it at the time, his work would be squared off against that of his mentor in a competition that involved billions of dollars and an international clash of reputations.

One advantage Huawei had was the backing of its government. US and European observers say China packs standards meetings with engineers who can be eyes and ears on the ground. Rivals also complain that Chinese companies work together in lockstep; even ostensible competitors will set aside differences to support a compatriot business.

For a brief moment in the middle of 2016, it looked as if that national wall of support wouldn’t hold. In a preliminary round of the 5G New Radio standards process, the Chinese company Lenovo expressed its preference for LDPC, because it was a more familiar technology. That didn’t last long. Lenovo changed its opinion later that year. Lenovo’s founder, Liu Chuanzhi, called Ren Zhengfei to make sure that no offense was taken by the original stance. Liu and other executives even drafted an open letter that read like a forced confession. “We all agree that Chinese enterprises should be united and not be provoked by outsiders,” Liu and his colleagues wrote. “Stick to it … raise the banner of national industry, and finally defeat the international giants.”

Thus united behind polar codes, Chinese industry prepared to do battle at the final, critical stage—the November 2016 engineering standards meetings held in Reno, Nevada. The venue was the Peppermill resort and casino. Engineers, hunkered in hotel conference rooms arguing about block codes and channel capacity, had little time to enjoy the craps tables or eucalyptus steam rooms. Simultaneous meetings to determine a number of standards kept engineers hopping from one conference room to the next, says Michael Thelander, a consultant specializing in wireless telecommunications. “But polar coding versus LDPC, that was the hot topic,” he says.

On the night of Friday, November 18, the conference room was packed, and the meeting, which began in the evening, turned into a standoff. Each company presented its work, including its testing results. “The battle was pretty well drawn, with most of the Western vendors lining up behind LDPC,” says Kevin Krewell, a principal analyst at Tirias Research, who follows 5G. Some Western companies backed polar codes too, but, significantly, all the Chinese companies did. “There was no obvious winner in the whole game, but it was very clear that Huawei was not going to back down,” says Thelander, who was on the scene as an observer. Neither would the LDPC side. “So we can sit there and spend six months fighting over this thing and delay 5G, or we compromise.”

So they did. The standards committee split the signal-processing standard into two parts. One technology could be used to send the user data. The other would be applied to what was known as the control channel, which manages how that data moves. The first function was assigned to LDPC, and the second to polar codes. It was well into the wee hours when the agreement was finalized.

Huawei was ecstatic. But it was not just Huawei’s win; it was China’s too. Finally, a Chinese company was getting respect commensurate with its increasingly dominant power in the marketplace. “Huawei-backed polar code entering the 5G standard has a symbolic meaning,” one observer told a reporter at the time. “This is the first time a Chinese company has entered a telecommunications framework agreement, winning the right to be heard.”

Qualcomm professes to be fine with the result. “It was very important for Huawei to get something,” says its CEO, Steve Mollenkopf. “Huawei is actually quite good. They are a formidable company. And I think that’s one thing that people need to acknowledge.”

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FROM THE MOMENT I learned about polar codes, I wanted to meet Erdal Arıkan. I doubted that he would speak to me. One journalist who had tried got the following response: “I do not wish to talk about my own work.” He was wary when I first reached out, but when I said I would come to Ankara, he agreed to meet. He picked me up at my hotel, leading me to his car with a quick handshake. He told me the school’s history as we drove to a kebab spot for dinner. The restaurant staff knew him, and I let him do the ordering. By the time he drove me back, he was excitedly sharing his views on 5G. We met again the next day at his office at Bilkent University, which is now a top research institution in Turkey, with 12,000 students. In 2019, Arıkan received the Shannon Award, the top honor in information science, for his work on polar codes. As he escorted me through the lobby of the engineering building that houses the department he helped build from scratch, we walked past a large framed photograph of Claude Shannon. The quote above it reads: “We may have knowledge of the past but cannot control it; we may control the future but have no knowledge of it.”

In his office, Arıkan scribbled equations on a large whiteboard to explain how he had achieved the Shannon limit. Afterward, we talked about Huawei. The company first contacted him in 2012. “We talked to each other, exchanged ideas,” he says. “This is the best mode of collaboration for me. I remain independent, and they do whatever they want.” He has personally taken no money from the telecom giant.

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In 2011, Arıkan started his own small company and took polar codes to Qualcomm and Seagate to see if they had interest in implementing the idea. “I did prepare some slides and sent them, but none of the US companies were really interested in it,” he says. He takes the blame for failing to ignite their interest. “I was an academic who did not know how to promote an idea. Perhaps I did not believe in the idea that strongly myself.” Later, those companies did work on polar codes and got their own patents, but without the same vigor as Huawei. “If it weren’t for the persistent efforts of Huawei researchers,” Arıkan says, “polar codes would not be in 5G today.”

I asked him about the over-the-top Huawei ceremony immortalized in that YouTube video. He told me that he’d received the invitation to visit in June 2018. “I said, ‘What is the occasion?’ And they said, ‘Mr. Ren wants to give you an award,’” Arıkan recalls. “I figured that Huawei is very happy because the standard has been made, and polar coding is definitely in it.” He thought he would show up and there would be a pleasant conversation with the founder and some engineers. He might leave with a plaque.

Arıkan arrived in Shenzhen and stayed at a guest house on campus. He had tea with Ren and was toasted by executives, including Wen Tong. But he sensed that something bigger was afoot. “They revealed the program to me one step at a time. I didn’t know how big that room would be, what kind of building we would go into. They didn’t tell me to dress nicely.” (He did anyway.) An hour before the ceremony his hosts informed him that perhaps he should prepare a speech. He hurriedly finished his remarks in the town car on the way to the ceremony.

“I have spent the last 30 years at Bilkent University doing research on a variety of problems that culminated in polar codes,” he told the crowd in his halting English. “Today our roads cross on a happy occasion.”

“I owe a lot to the US. I give you friendly advice: You have to accept this as the new reality and deal with it accordingly.”

ERDAL ARIKAN

The spectacle didn’t go to Arıkan’s head. “They were not honoring me,” he told me as we sat in his office. “Huawei was saying, ‘We didn’t steal this idea from anybody, and here is the originator of the idea.’ There is no question that Huawei is the most technologically sophisticated company in China. Maybe for the first time in a thousand years, China is showing they are competing head to head with the rest of the world in technology. The US could live with intellectual property theft, but it is much harder to live with being in competition with an equal power.

“Polar codes itself is not what’s important,” he continued. “It is a symbol. 5G is totally different than the internet. It’s like a global nervous system. Huawei is the leading company in 5G. They will be around in 10, 20, 50 years—you cannot say that about the US tech companies. In the internet era, the US produced a few trillion-dollar companies. Because of 5G, China will have 10 or more trillion-dollar companies. Huawei and China now have the lead.”

US companies and the US government can no longer expect to beat China back with threats or indictments, even if they are sometimes warranted. And it’s not just telecom companies like Huawei. For all the furor at the highest levels over whether the teen-oriented social app TikTok presented security issues, the real threat to American business was that its Chinese engineers had devised an AI-powered recommendation engine that Silicon Valley had not matched.

Arıkan says the experience has led him to respect Huawei—and to provide a warning to the country where he learned information theory. “I owe a lot to the US,” he says. “I give you friendly advice: You have to accept this as the new reality and deal with it accordingly.”

To paraphrase Shannon: No one knows the future. But Huawei and China now have a hand in controlling it.