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

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?“


Aramco profits fall in tough quarter, but sees partial recovery from COVID-19 impact

Updated 11 min 52 sec ago

Aramco profits fall in tough quarter, but sees partial recovery from COVID-19 impact

  • Aramco see’s “partial recovery” from pandemic impact
  • Aramco president says company remains resilient

DUBAI: Saudi Aramco, the world’s biggest oil company, reported a net income of $6.57bn for the second quarter of 2020, the period which witnessed the most volatile oil market conditions for many decades.

The result, announced to the Tadawul stock exchange in Riyadh where the shares are listed, compared with income of $24.7 bn last year.

Amin Nasser, president and chief executive, said: “Despite COVID-19 bringing the world to a standstill, Aramco kept going. We have proven our financial resilience and operational reliability, setting a record in our business operations, while at the same time taking steps to ensure the health and safety of our people.”

Aramco’s dividend - a big attraction for the investors who bought into the world’s biggest initial public offering last year - will remain as pledged, Nasser added. Cash flow in the quarter amounted to $6.106 bn.

““Strong headwinds from reduced demand and lower oil prices are reflected in our second quarter results. Yet we delivered solid earnings because of our low production costs, unique scale, agile workforce, and unrivalled financial and operational strength. This helped us deliver on our plan to maintain a second quarter dividend of $18.75 billion to be paid in the third quarter,” he said.

Aramco said the loss was “mainly reflecting the impact of lower crude oil prices and declining refining and chemicals margins, partly offset by a decrease in production royalties resulting from lower crude oil prices and a decrease in the royalty rate from 20 per cent to 15 per cent, lower income taxes and zakat as a result of lower earnings, and higher other income related to sales for gas products.”

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Sales and revenue in the period - which saw oil prices collapse on “Black Monday” in April - fell 57 per cent to $32.861 bn from the comparable period last year. 

Nasser said he was cautiously optimistic that the world economy was slowly recovering from the depths of the pandemic lockdowns.

“We are seeing a partial recovery in the energy market as countries around the world take steps to ease restrictions and reboot their economies. Meanwhile, we continue to place people’s safety first and have adapted to the new normal, implementing wide-ranging precautions to limit the spread of COVID-19 wherever we operate.

“We are determined to emerge from the pandemic stronger and will continue making progress on our long-term strategic journey, through ongoing investments in our business – which has one of the lowest upstream carbon footprints in the world,” he added.

Aramco expects capital expenditure to be at the lower end of the $25bn to $30bn range it has already indicated for this year.