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Authoritarian Tech

Microsoft’s AI research project in China prompts criticism

A collaboration between Microsoft researchers and academics linked to a military-backed university in China has raised concerns about the extent of U.S. participation in helping build China’s surveillance and censorship infrastructure.

For the past year, researchers working at Microsoft Research Asia in Beijing have co-authored at least three papers with academics linked to China’s National University of Defense Technology (NUDT), whose parent authority is the Central Military Commission. The joint research has covered a number of artificial intelligence fields, including facial analysis and machine reading.

Experts who focus on China worry that the research could help Beijing further limit freedoms for minority groups such as Uyghurs. “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 Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies.

While there is nothing unusual about companies like Microsoft working on research projects in authoritarian countries, the technology firm’s collaboration with the NUDT has come under criticism at a time when there is increased scrutiny of China-U.S. trade and concerns over the global influence of Chinese technology.

In an email, a Microsoft spokesperson said the company’s researchers “conduct fundamental research with leading scholars and experts from around the world to advance our understanding of technology”. The statement added that the research “fully complies with U.S. and local laws”.

Marco Rubio, a Republican senator from Florida, accused Microsoft of aiding China’s surveillance apparatus. “It is deeply disturbing that an American company would be actively working with the Chinese military to further build up the government’s surveillance network against its own people, an act that makes them complicit in aiding the Communist Chinese government’s totalitarian censorship apparatus and egregious human rights abuses,” he said. As the Trump administration nears the completion of a new trade deal with China, the U.S. government is considering enforcing more export controls on research collaborations which dig deep into sensitive areas such as robots, quantum computing and artificial intelligence.

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