Two Ontario universities, York and Queen’s, are collaborating with a major Chinese artificial intelligence company that has been blacklisted by the US government for providing surveillance equipment used against Muslim Uyghurs.
iFlytek, a partially state-owned company that specializes in speech recognition, provided $ 1.5 million to York University in Toronto in 2015 to create a new iFlytek lab for neural computation and machine learning and a chair at the Lassonde School of Engineering. Queen’s University in Kingston received $ 727,000 in 2019 from the Chinese AI company to develop learning models that detect and process speech.
A professor from the iFlytek lab in York worked with scientists from the National University of Defense Technology of China, one of the country’s leading military research institutes under the direct guidance of the Communist Party of China Central Military Commission ( CCP) in power.
Washington placed the voice recognition company on its commercial blacklist in October 2019 for providing voice recognition equipment to police in China’s Xinjiang region, where more than one million people have been held in camps for detention and Muslim minorities are subject to mass surveillance. The US measure prevents companies from purchasing components from US companies without US government approval.
Due to growing human rights concerns, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology severed a five-year research collaboration agreement with iFlytek in 2020.
“IFlytek is heavily involved in the surveillance system in China,” said Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, senior researcher at the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Science, Society and Policy. “It is their equipment that is used by the police in Xinjiang where Uyghur voices are recorded in different modulations so that people can listen to phone calls and know exactly who is speaking.”
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York spokesman Yanni Dagonas defended the partnership with iFlytek, but noted that the university’s five-year funding agreement expires in 2020.
“This donation supported and enhanced York’s existing research efforts and established the iFlytek Lab… which supports research activities at York University in the areas of machine learning, natural language processing and theory. machine learning, ”he said. “All intellectual property developed with this funding is owned by York researchers and the results of this research are in the public domain.”
Queen’s spokesperson Mark Erdman said the university was “very aware that questions are being raised within government and others regarding universities collaborating on research with entities that have links with the Chinese government ”. He said the funded project was “essentially now complete”.
Mr. Erdman said Canada benefits from the participation of universities in the “global research ecosystem” and said academic freedom and the ability to conduct research unhindered, within ethical and legal guidelines , are enrolled in all Canadian universities.
He said Queen’s will work closely with the federal government to develop tools that ensure researchers are able to “safely engage” in research partnerships “while preserving … academic freedom and the free exchange of scientific ideas ”. He said this includes federal guidelines being developed to “integrate national security considerations into research activities.”
The two universities declined to say if they had any concerns about using iFlytek’s technology to suppress Uyghurs. In February, Canada’s House of Commons overwhelmingly approved a motion recognizing that China is committing genocide against its Muslim minority. The Dutch, British and Lithuanian parliaments have since passed similar motions recognizing the treatment of Uyghurs as genocide.
Ms McCuaig-Johnston, former executive vice-president of the federal government’s National Research and Engineering Council, said she respects academic freedom, but added that Canadian universities should not accept money from entities Chinese involved in human rights violations or linked to the Beijing army and security apparatus.
She also expressed concern that the iFlytek lab in York is collaborating with Chinese military scientists.
“There is a China-funded lab at York University and the researcher is working in partnership with five researchers from the National University of Defense Technology. It’s a huge red flag and we shouldn’t be collaborating with researchers from institutions like this, ”she said.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has documented a number of concerns about iFlytek, which the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology has named as the national champion for voice-related AI.[ASPI)hasdocumentedanumberofconcernswithiFlytekwhichChina’sMinistryofScienceandTechnologyhasnamedanationalchampioninvoice-relatedAI[ASPI)hasdocumentedanumberofconcernswithiFlytekwhichChina’sMinistryofScienceandTechnologyhasnamedanationalchampioninvoice-relatedAI
According to Human Rights Watch, iFlytek maintains close collaboration with the Chinese government and the Communist Party, and has helped the Ministry of Public Security set up a national database of voice models. IFlytek Chairman Liu Qingfeng is a member of the National People’s Congress, the Chinese parliament.
The company’s technology has been used in “criminal investigations, indictments and trials through work with more than 400 courts and 200 prosecutor’s offices across China,” ASPI said, citing Chinese media. as the source.
Reuters reported that an iFlytek subsidiary was the sole supplier of 25 “voiceprint” collection systems to police in 2016 in Kashgar, a city in Xinjiang. Another iFlytek subsidiary signed a “strategic cooperation framework agreement” with the Xinjiang Prison Administration office, Reuters reported.
Canadian academic collaboration with China has become a priority for the federal and provincial governments.
Last week, Alberta ordered its four major universities to suspend further partnerships with people or organizations linked to Beijing or the CCP, citing concerns about national security and the risk that the research could be used to facilitate human rights violations.
Alberta urges Ottawa to set rigorous national standards to ensure that Canadian universities and researchers do not transfer scientific and intellectual property data to China that benefits its military and security apparatus.
In March, the Minister of Innovation, François-Philippe Champagne, announced the creation of a federal working group, in which universities and granting councils would participate, which would develop “guidelines on specific risks to integrate the considerations of national security in the evaluation and funding of research partnerships ”. The guidelines would send a signal to Canadian university researchers, who often depend on foreign money to fund their work, but not prohibit them from doing so. The task force is due to report on June 25.
Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada, said discussions were ongoing with Ottawa and national security agencies for “many months about the changing geopolitical landscape and how best to manage the potential risks with the benefits. international research collaboration ”.