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?“


Frank Kane’s Davos diary: Swiss efficiency lapses, but so far Davos lives up to the cuckoo-clock image

Updated 52 min 3 sec ago

Frank Kane’s Davos diary: Swiss efficiency lapses, but so far Davos lives up to the cuckoo-clock image

Davos comes and Davos goes, but over the last five decades, the one thing you can rely on is Swiss efficiency, right? The trains run on time, the cuckoo clocks chime on the hour, and the snow is swept from the pathways within minutes of the first fake falling. That is the common (even cliched) view of the Alpine nation and its showpiece event, the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos.

But — and whisper it very gently beneath your breath — maybe the legendary standards of Swiss efficiency are slipping as the WEF celebrates its 50th birthday. Evidence of a lapse from the highest levels of attainment came at Zurich Airport, when the luggage belt seized up inexplicably, and a full 10 minutes elapsedbefore a maintenance man came to attend to it. Tut tut.

Further signs of falling standards were on display at the railway station. The booking desks were besieged, as usual, by WEF delegates keen to complete the final leg of their journey up the Magic Mountain — a two-hour rail journey involving two stops at increasingly higher altitudes.

But only two of the 10 grills were manned, and the line grew longer and more grumpy with each passing minute. The mood was not helped when some trains were canceled and an extra hour was added to the journey. There was much muttering and dark looks shot when the train finally pulled into Klosters.

But thankfully, once you got to the heart of WEF-land, normal service was resumed. There had been a reasonable fall of snow that morning, which gave the place its usual fairytale appearance, but no traffic snarl ups as in previous years, when massive snowfall had caused the place to grind to a halt.

The shuttle buses that are the arterial life-channels of Davos — for those whose budgets do not extend to the black Mercedes limo — were running with their usual Swiss punctuality: Every 10 minutes or so, or even more frequently during peak rush hours.

These, in my experience over the past few years, are becoming frequently extended. Having battled through the registration process and attended one event at the nearby Seehof hotel, I imagined it would be easy to catch a ride on a virtually empty shuttle back to Klosters at around 9.30 p.m. But even at that hour, there was a long queue of unhappy souls waiting to make the same 20-minute trip to the other side of the mountain and their warm, welcoming hotel rooms.

It was the same thing on the opening morning of the annual meeting. I left my hotel — the homely and comfortable Cresta in Klosters — at 7 a.m. in the dark, and at minus 5 degrees Celsius. Again, there was a crowd of people standing huddled at the shuttle stop, shivering and stamping their feet.

The WEF shuttle service was up to the job, however, and I got into the Congress Hall with little trouble. The airport-style screening process — maybe a little more thorough than usual in view of the impending arrival of US President Donald Trump — passed smoothly. One request though: Please WEF, install some hot-air machines in the security hall. The body shock when you remove outer clothing to pass through the metal detectors was wicked.

Then down to business, which for a journalist at Davos means finding somewhere in the congress complex where you can rest a laptop while also providing a good people-watching vantage point. Over the years, I have learned that the Central Lounge — strategically located between the main plenary meeting halls and the (private) members lounge and bilateral rooms — is the perfect spot. Now, who will come my way in Davos 2020?