Microsoft’s work with Chinese military university raises eyebrows

A Microsoft official said the research is “fully complies with US and local laws.” (File/AFP)
Updated 12 April 2019
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Microsoft’s work with Chinese military university raises eyebrows

  • The research covers a number of AI topics, such as face analysis and machine reading
  • Microsoft’s work with the Chinese military-backed university comes amid increasing scrutiny around China-US academic partnerships

BEIJING: Microsoft has been collaborating with researchers linked to a Chinese military-backed university on artificial intelligence, elevating concerns that US firms are contributing to China’s high-tech surveillance and censorship apparatus.
Over the past year, researchers at Microsoft Research Asia in Beijing have co-authored at least three papers with scholars affiliated with China’s National University of Defense Technology (NUDT), which is overseen by the Central Military Commission.
The research covers a number of AI topics, such as face analysis and machine reading, which enables computers to parse and understand online text.
While it is not unusual for US and Chinese scholars to conduct joint research, Microsoft’s work with the military-backed NUDT comes amid increasing scrutiny around China-US academic partnerships, as well as China’s high-tech surveillance drive in the northwest region of Xinjiang.
“The new methods and technologies described in their joint papers could very well be contributing to China’s crackdown on minorities in Xinjiang, for which they are using facial recognition technology,” said Helena Legarda, a research associate at the Mercator Institute for China Studies, who focuses on China’s foreign and security policies.
“Many of these advanced technologies are dual-use, so they could also contribute to the PLA’s (People’s Liberation Army’s) modernization and informatization drive, helping the Chinese military move closer to the 2049 goal of being a world-class military,” she added.
In an email, a Microsoft spokesman told AFP that the company’s researchers “conduct fundamental research with leading scholars and experts from around the world to advance our understanding of technology.”
In each case, the research “fully complies with US and local laws” and is published to “ensure transparency so everyone can benefit from our work,” he said Thursday.

The growing concerns around human rights violations in Xinjiang have also added pressure to US firms with business in the region, where some one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim Turkic language-speaking minorities are held in re-education camps, according to a UN panel of experts.
In February, US biotechnology manufacturer Thermo Fisher announced it would stop selling equipment used to create a DNA database of the Uighur minority to China.
That same month, a security researcher exposed a massive database compiled by Chinese tech firm SenseNets, which stored the personal information and tracked the locations of 2.6 million people in Xinjiang.
At the time of the data leak, Microsoft was listed as one of SenseNets’ partners. The company declined to comment.
But experts have also stressed that, in the case of NUDT, Microsoft’s co-published work is open and publicly accessible.
“The authors are basically sharing with the rest of the world how to replicate their approaches, models, and results,” said Andy Chun, an adjunct computer science professor at City University of Hong Kong.
That allows others to potentially “build upon, enhance and expand this research,” he said.
Microsoft Research Asia also tends to focus on long-term research or projects that are not immediately transferable to applications, such as those that could be used to monitor or suppress a population of people, pointed out Yu Zhou, a professor at Vassar College, who studies globalization and China’s high-tech industry.
And while such concerns are certainly valid, it may be difficult for AI researchers to avoid China, she told AFP.
“It’s a field where Chinese researchers have made quite a lot of advancements, and they are generating data which is the raw material for this industry — so how are you going to avoid that?“


Lufthansa profit warning spooks European airline sector

Updated 17 June 2019
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Lufthansa profit warning spooks European airline sector

  • Ryanair Chief Executive Michael O’Leary last month warned of the impact of what he called ‘attritional fare wars’

FRANKFURT: Germany’s Lufthansa sent shockwaves through the European airline sector on Monday as it cut its full-year profit forecast, with lower prices and higher fuel costs compounding the effect of losses at its budget subsidiary Eurowings.
The warning follows gloomy comments last month from Irish budget airline Ryanair, which vies with Lufthansa for top spot in Europe in terms of passengers carried. Air France-KLM also reported a widening quarterly loss last month.
In a statement issued late on Sunday, Lufthansa forecast annual EBIT of between €2 billion and €2.4 billion, down from the previously targeted €2.4 billion to €3 billion.
“Yields in the European short-haul market, in particular in the group’s home markets, Germany and Austria, are affected by sustained overcapacities caused by carriers willing to accept significant losses to expand their market share,” it said.
European airlines are locked in a battle for supremacy, with a surfeit of seats holding down revenues and higher fuel costs adding to the pressure. A number of smaller airlines have collapsed over the past two years.
Lufthansa cited falling revenue from its Eurowings budget business as a key reason for the profit warning.
“The group expects the European market to remain challenging at least for the remainder of 2019,” it said.
It also pointed to high jet fuel costs, which it said could exceed last year’s figure by €550 million, despite a recent fall in crude oil prices.
Ryanair Chief Executive Michael O’Leary last month warned of the impact of what he called “attritional fare wars” and said four or five European airlines were likely to emerge as the winners in the sector.
“No signs that anyone is prepared to reduce capacity, therefore we would anticipate the wave of consolidation in European short haul is not over,” said analyst Neil Wilson, analyst at London-based broker market.com.
Earlier this month global airlines slashed a widely watched industry profit forecast by 21 percent as an expanding trade war and higher oil prices compound worries about an overdue industry slowdown.
Lufthansa’s problems are centered on its European business, with a more positive outlook for its long-haul operations, especially on transatlantic and Asian routes.
Eurowings management is due to implement turnaround measures to be presented shortly, Lufthansa said, adding that efforts to reduce costs had so far been slower than expected.
Lufthansa’s adjusted margin for earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) was forecast between 5.5 percent and 6.5 percent, down from 6.5 percent to 8 percent previously, it said in a statement.
Lufthansa also said it would make a €340 million provision for in its first-half accounts, relating to a tax matter in Germany originating in the years between 2001 and 2005.