Microsoft has been working with a Chinese military-run university on artificial intelligence research that could be used for surveillance and censorship.
Artificial Intelligence (AI), sometimes called machine intelligence, is intelligence demonstrated by machines, in contrast to the natural intelligence displayed by humans and animals. Computer science defines AI research as the study of "intelligent agents": any device that perceives its environment and takes actions that maximize its chance of successfully achieving its goals.
Colloquially, the term "artificial intelligence" is used to describe machines that mimic "cognitive" functions that humans associate with other human minds, such as "learning" and "problem solving".
The traditional problems (or goals) of AI research include reasoning, knowledge representation, planning, learning, natural language processing, perception and the ability to move and manipulate objects. General intelligence is among the long-term goals of this field of study and exploration.
Many tools are used in AI, including versions of search and mathematical optimization, artificial neural networks, and methods based on statistics, probability and economics. The AI field draws upon computer science, information engineering, mathematics, psychology, linguistics, philosophy, and many other fields.
In the twenty-first century, AI techniques have experienced a resurgence following concurrent advances in computer power, large amounts of data, and theoretical understanding; and AI techniques have become an essential part of the technology industry, helping to solve many challenging problems in computer science, software engineering and operations research.
The US and China are industry leaders for AI and other allied fields such as robotics. Both countries pumps in billions of dollars into AI research and application programs annually, employing millions of technicians, engineers and programmers.
Three papers, published between March and November last year, were co-written by academics at Microsoft Research Asia in Beijing and researchers with affiliations to China’s National University of Defense Technology, which is controlled by China’s top military body, the Central Military Commission.
The papers raised “red flags because of the nature of the technology, the author affiliations, combined with what we know about how this technology is being deployed in China right now”.
The US government is currently debating whether research collaborations, particularly in sensitive areas such as artificial intelligence and augmented reality, should be subject to stricter export controls.
US-China academic partnerships are increasingly under the microscope as the FBI focuses on the threat of espionage from students and scientists, and the defence department [focuses] on the possibility that frontier technologies might eventually make their way to the PLA [People’s Liberation Army].
Last week, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology cut ties with telecoms group Huawei and launched an “elevated risk” review process for its Chinese collaborations. Microsoft said its “researchers, who are often academics, conduct fundamental research with leading scholars and experts from around the world to advance our understanding of technology”.
It added: “In each case, the research is guided by our principles, fully complies with US and local laws, and . . . is published to ensure transparency so that everyone can benefit from our work.” One of the papers co-authored by Microsoft and researchers affiliated with the NUDT described a new AI method to recreate detailed environmental maps by analysing human faces, which experts say could have clear applications for surveillance and censorship. The paper acknowledges that the system provides a better understanding of the surrounding environment “not viewed by the camera”, which can have a “variety of vision applications”.
Microsoft’s research arm in Beijing has collaborated on at least two other papers with NUDT researchers, including in the area of machine reading — a way for computers to understand the online text. The papers underscore Microsoft Research’s long-running links to Chinese military-funded academia, including its operation of several “tech clubs” for students at Chinese universities known to have military links including NUDT, Beihang University and the Harbin University of Technology.
The US commerce department is currently seeking public comment to help identify emerging technologies that are essential to US national security because they may enable intelligence collection, weapons of mass destruction, or terrorist applications, or could provide the US with a qualitative military or intelligence advantage, according to law firm White & Case.
Our assessment is that the US government will raise a strong objection to Microsoft’s partnership with a Chinese military college on the development of AI, as it violates the US’s perception of national security objectives. We believe that despite each country’s individual commitments to AI, this incident shows how the US and Chinese AI research firms need each other to cut down on redundancies or to accelerate innovations. We also believe that it would be difficult for commercial companies to refuse such collaborations with countries where they have sizeable business operations, though it may have larger security ramifications.