Human Rights: MIT Says ‘No’ to Chinese AI Contract

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Chinese diplomats will have to get government approval before visiting university campuses. (Image: John Phelan/MIT)

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has canceled a research contract with iFLYTEK, an AI (artificial intelligence) firm from China that has been involved in activities linked to human rights violations against Uyghurs and other communities. A 2018 White House report warned that iFLYTEK is a Chinese startup supporting the modernization of the country’s military.

Prioritizing human rights

In June 2018, MIT entered into a 5-year collaboration with iFLYTEK, which aided the university in researching machine learning, human-computer interaction, voice recognition, and so on. The company had the right to select which projects were to be funded. However, it apparently did not receive any proprietary data or code.

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Back in 2017, a report by Human Rights Watch listed the company as having supplied the Xinjiang police departments with technology that allowed identifying people by using voiceprints. In October last year, the U.S. government blacklisted 6 Chinese AI firms, banning them from doing business with U.S. enterprises due to their involvement in repressing the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang. iFLYTEK was one of them. And in February this year, MIT decided to cancel its relationship with the company to comply with tightened government guidelines on receiving funds from countries like Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia.

A 2018 White House report had warned that iFLYTEK is a Chinese startup supporting the modernization of the country’s military. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)
A 2018 White House report warned that iFLYTEK is a Chinese startup supporting the modernization of the country’s military. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

Michael Kratsios, the technology chief at White House, praised MIT for its decision. “We thank @MIT for making the right call and standing up for American values. Other institutions should follow their lead and cut ties with nefarious Chinese tech companies that violate human rights on the @CommerceGov Entity List,” he said in the tweet @USCTO.

Kratsios had traveled to Boston in November to warn American companies, investors, and universities against doing business with Chinese companies that might potentially be involved in human rights abuses.

For 2019, iFLYTEK reported a 27 percent increase in revenues compared to the previous year, with a 51 percent rise in net profit. However, for the quarter ending March 2020, revenues fell by 28 percent YoY, with the company registering a net loss of about 131 million yuan (US$18 million). Though the firm has attributed this loss to the CCP coronavirus pandemic, many experts believe that U.S. sanctions have also played a role in iFLYTEK’s dismal performance.

iFLYTEK aided the Xinjiang police department in identifying people by using voiceprints. (Image: Screenshot / YouTube)

MIT’s move to decouple itself from Chinese companies is expected to trigger similar reactions from other American universities, as they wouldn’t want to be associated with any firm that is linked to the Chinese regime. Much of this will depend on how the U.S-China trade relationship proceeds once the impact of coronavirus ends.

If things go south and the U.S. administration remains unhappy with Beijing’s commitments toward business transparency and IP theft policies, things are going to get harder for Chinese tech firms looking to do business in America.

AI and the CPP virus

AI is also helping humanity deal with the CCP coronavirus outbreak. BenevolentAI, a drug-discovery company from London, uses Artificial Intelligence to find links between genetic and biological properties of diseases as well as the composition and action of medications. For this, the AI is fed with large quantities of scientific research.

Ever since COVID-19 started infecting people around the world, the company has been using its AI to find possible cures. The AI has apparently suggested several potential solutions that could counter the CCP coronavirus that need to be tested to verify their efficacy.

Researchers from TCS Innovation Labs in Hyderabad, India, have used AI to identify 31 candidate molecules that could disrupt the replication function of the CCP coronavirus. The company will soon be starting chemical synthesis and biological testing to verify its results. Meanwhile, an AI model developed by a team from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) has predicted that the coronavirus pandemic could end by December this year.

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