SHANGHAI (Reuters) – The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at least one other university has research partnerships with a Chinese artificial intelligence firm that has business ties with police in China's Xinjiang region, where a sweeping breakdown at Uighurs has drawn international condemnation.
FILE PHOTO: Signed at Building 76 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA November 21, 2018. REUTERS / Brian Snyder / File Photo
A 2016 public procurement campaign named a subsidiary of iFlytek as sole provider of 25 voiceprint collection systems for police in Kashgar, a city in Xinjiang. Another iFlytek subsidiary signed a "Strategic Framework Agreement" with Xinjiang Prison Administration Agency, according to a blog post from May 2017 on the social media platform WeChat.
Authorities can use voice imprint technology, which captures the unique signatures of a person's voice, to help track and identify people, say human rights activists.
Reuters found no evidence that any of the universities were directly involved in creating technology for iFlytek, or that their work was intended for use in Xinjiang, where Uighurs, a Muslim minority group, is under strict surveillance, including in "learning camps. . "
Nevertheless, some US universities are looking closer at working with Chinese technology companies in light of the US-China trade conflict, Washington's telecommunications equipment maker's review, and reports on human rights violations in Xinjiang.
MIT, for example, announced in April that it would break the ties with Huawei and competitor ZTE, as the US government says is a security risk. Other institutions, including the University of California, Berkeley, have also stopped funding from Huawei for all research partnerships.
iFlytek refused to comment on its activities with China's security agencies in Xinjiang and elsewhere in the country. In a statement sent via WeChat, a Reuters representative said "some of the collaboration and content are related to security issues."
The company added that the research at MIT is "based on the common understanding of the use of artificial intelligence to build a beautiful world" and that iFlytek was a "socially responsible company".
Last year, MIT announced a five-year agreement under which iFlytek would contribute to drawing three research projects at the university's renowned Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).
The projects concern AI in health care; speech recognition; and what CSAIL described in its announcement as creating "more human AI."
"The CSAIL understands and has considered the concerns raised about this work," said lab spokesman Adam Conner-Simons in an email to Reuters. "But we decided it was still appropriate to continue because the results of all three projects can be published in open scientific literature, and research is not expected to have immediate applications."
Randall Davis, one of the MIT researchers, said iFlytek had not disrupted its health-focused research, which relates to using AI-driven analysis to diagnose cognitive decline.
"We want a system that really understands what you are talking about or what you really want in the face of your face," said Davis, a professor of engineering and computer science.
He added that iFlytek had not sent anyone to work in his laboratory and did not have exclusive access to the results of his research.
Dana Penney, director of neuropsychology at Lahey Hospital and the Medical Center in Burlington, Mass., Who works with CSAIL, said the research was "of the highest ethical and professional standards." Jim Glass, who does language-related research at MIT, said iFlytek had not disturbed the team's work.
Joshua Tenenbaum, professor of brain science and cognitive science, who also conducts research on MIT as part of the partnership with iFlytek, did not respond to requests for comment.
In November 2017, China's Ministry of Science and Technology was named iFlytek, founded in 1999, a national master of voice-related AI.
China Mobile, the state-owned telecommunications operator, is iFlytek's largest shareholder, with a 12.85 percent stake, according to the 2018 annual report, released in April.
A procurement campaign from Kashgar's Public Security Agency, dated May 13, 2016, shows a wholly-owned subsidiary of iFlytek, iFlytek Intelligent Information Technology Co. Ltd, as a provider of 25 voice capture collection systems. Reuters could not verify with the iFlytek or Xinjiang authorities if the contract was met.
On May 3, 2017, another iFlytek subsidiary, whose name translates as "Xinjiang iFlytek", signed the strategic agreement with the Xinjiang Prison Administration Agency to collaborate on the interpretation and translation of human voice and legal documents, according to a post dated May 6, 2017, on an iFlytek company blog.
The Xinjiang government did not respond to a request for comment on any of the documents. Xinjiang Prison Agency also did not respond to a request for comment and referred the request to the Xinjiang Propaganda Department. The propaganda department did not respond to a request for comment.
Public procurement databases contain 31 other documents called iFlytek Intelligent Information Technology or a former name for the same company as supplier of voice-printing related products or services to 25 police departments in China and the Ministry of Public Security between 2014 and 2018. Most documents were from the police forces in Anhui, the province of East China, where iFlytek is based.
Eight police authorities and the Public Security Ministry confirmed that they had used or still used iFlytek voiceprint related technology; you could not be reached or referred to other departments that could not be reached; Five said they were ignorant or unclear about such contracts; and three refused to comment.
Gao Kang, a policeman in Jixi County, Anhui Province, confirmed that his department had purchased iFlytek Voiceprint collection equipment in 2015 and still used it.
"Suspected criminals or people suspected of breaking the law must have their voice imprints collected when they enter our case processing area," he said on the phone.
Maya Wang, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that she and a colleague interviewed people in Xinjiang in May 2018 who had been taken to the police station and asked to read a newspaper, sing a song or tell a story in front of a machine like seemed to be recording them. iFlytek refused to comment on whether this was its technology.
Activists say China holds more than 1 million people in detention camps in Xinjiang. The authorities have implemented a number of biometric technologies to track the population.
China has said its actions are justified by the need to squeeze Islamist extremism, and in March, the Xinjiang governor called the camps "boarding schools."
Although the MIT donation is the latest in a series iFlytek has made in recent years for research, the company has other collaborations in North America.
In October 2015, York University in Toronto, Canada announced that iFlytek had given the university's Lassonde School of Engineering $ 1.5 million to create a neural computing and machine learning laboratory and provide professorship.
Yanni Dagonas, a university representative in York, said in an e-mail that iFlytek's 2015 gift supported existing research, that research results were published, and that research was not related to voice imprint technology.
"York does not accept gifts when a state of such acceptance would lead to a shortening of academic freedom or integrity," the reading said. The university added that it was unaware of the company's business in Xinjiang.
In April 2017, Rutgers Business School announced that it had accepted $ 1 million from iFlytek for a five-year effort to create a Big Data Laboratory that explores data mining and business intelligence, among other things, according to the school's website.
The school, in a statement, called the work "research into data-mining methods that could be used by the company to improve its marketing efficiency." It said the deal had been concluded mutually in February, without saying why.
In its 2018 annual report, iFlytek speculated what it called "strategic collaboration" with Princeton University. The collaboration covers applied and computational mathematics, it said in a post on the website that was unavailable on Wednesday.
Ben Chang, a spokesman for Princeton, confirmed in a statement that iFlytek had made "a gift to support basic research done by a faculty member" but said there was no strategic cooperation agreement. The faculty must follow a due diligence process before signing agreements, he added.
Reporting by Alexandra Harney; Additional reporting from John Ruwitch and Shanghai Newsroom. Editing by Gerry Doyle