How a bankrupt U.S. company could give China a powerful new superweapon development system

Summary:What happens when a company develops innovative new technology -- really, really innovative technology, then goes belly up?

So here's a new national security problem. What happens when a company develops innovative new technology -- really, really innovative technology, then goes belly up? What happens to the tech?

See also:Hacking attacks from China hit energy companies worldwide

We're seeing the U.S. government grapple with just this sort of problem right now, in the relatively obscure case of Huawei Technologies and 3Leaf Systems.

Let's first explore the players. 3Leaf Systems was a company that was -- apparently -- doing some interesting processor scaling work. Although the company's Web site is gone and most of the content on the Web has vanished, there's a 15-month-old report in The Register that describes some of the tech.

Roughly, 3Leaf was building technology for dynamically scalable supercomputers. In the same way you can use a box of Legos to build up toys of almost any shape, the idea that 3Leaf had was to use lots of processors to build up a specialized, parallel super-computer of pretty much any architectural need.

Now, we've had tightly-coupled and loosely-coupled multiprocessor machines and clusters for decades. But from what I can tell, the 3Leaf design was particularly scalable and malleable.

In any case, for some reason I haven't yet tracked down, 3Leaf went bankrupt. If I had to guess, I'd say it was probably skittish VCs in a nasty recession.

Enter Huawei Technologies.

This is a Chinese company that many government officials think might have some tie to the Chinese government. You think? Just about every enterprise in China has some tie or approval from the government to function. Huawei, some think, has more of a tie because, as Reuters reports, Huawei was founded by a former Chinese soldier and may have more serious ties to the Chinese military.

Anyway, Huawei decided to pick up 3Leaf's assets (including employees, patents, and servers) from the bankruptcy. Essentially, Huawei bought 3Leaf without having to buy 3Leaf.

This little deal came to the attention of Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), an inter-agency group that watches over such acquisitions. CFIUS say this not good for America.

According to the Wall Street Journal (paywall), the CFIUS is asking President Obama and the Pentagon to stop the sale.

Why is everyone in such a huff?

Massively parallel computers can be used to solve big -- really, really big -- computational problems. These sorts of problems include human gene analysis, filtering signals from stars, and doing analysis of things like submarine acoustic signatures or battlefield-wide blast patterns.

If China gains easy access to this technology, and then is able to dynamically reconfigure it as needed, the implications are potentially staggering. If this technology works, and China buys it from a defunct U.S. company, then it's also possible China will have it, and we won't. That would suck.

Topics: Hardware, China, Government, Government : US, Processors

About

In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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