Twitter's Hiring of China-Linked AI Expert Sparks Concern


2020-05-20
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china-lifeifei-052020.jpg Chinese artificial intelligence expert Li Fei-Fei is shown in an RFA-edited file photo.
AP

Commentators have been raising concerns over Twitter's recent hiring of artificial intelligence (AI) star Fei-Fei Li, who has links to the Chinese Communist Party.

Twitter appointed Stanford professor and former Google vice president Li to its board as an independent director earlier this month, citing her AI expertise.

Li's appointment came after she left her role as chief scientist of AI/ML (artificial intelligence/machine learning) at Google Cloud in October 2018 following a controversy surrounding Google's Project Maven initiative, which helped the Pentagon identify drone targets from blurry video footage.

The project prompted an employee revolt at Google, with some 4,000 signing a petition against Project Maven, and some quitting in protest.

Li was also instrumental in the setting up of a new Google AI lab in China.

Twitter currently uses an AI technique called deep learning to recommend tweets to its users and also uses AI to identify racist content and hate speech, or content from extremist groups.

France-based commentator Wang Longmeng said hiring Li to work at Twitter was like hiring a fox to guard the hen-coop.

"They seem to have ignored the backstory of Li's previous cooperation with China," he said. "Li Fei-fei ... secretly opposed Google's cooperation with the U.S. Department of Defense from a high moral standpoint ... but turned a blind eye to Project Dragonfly, in which Google was planning to help the Chinese Communist Party vet online speech."

Wang said Li also used a slogan closely associated with Chinese President Xi Jinping in a 2017 media interview in China, pledging to help China develop its AI capabilities.

"I hope that democratic countries will reflect on this and start plugging the loopholes," he said. "Fei-fei Li is very likely to be one of those loopholes."

Key military technology

Li is also an adviser on AI to China's prestigious Tsinghua University. Its vice president You Zheng has said that the university's AI research has two main purposes, one of which is to meet national defense needs under a "military-civilian integration policy."

AI has been named as a key military technology under President Xi, who has announced that China plans to become a world leader in the field by 2030.

In addition, Li has been linked to a students' association under the aegis of the Chinese Communist Party's United Front Work Department.

Mainland media reports listed  her as a guest at China Overseas Talent Exchange Conferences in the southern city of Guangzhou in 2017 and in Beijing in 2018, both of which were hosted by the European and American Alumni Association under the aegis of the United Front Work Department.

Li also has ties to the Beijing-based Future Forum for the development of mobile technology with a strong 5G focus. The organization operates under the aegis of the state-run China Association for Science and Technology, and is supported by Beijing's Chaoyang District Government, according to its website.

The Forum has been linked with some of the biggest names in Chinese technology, including NetEase founder Ding Lei and Baidu founder Li Yanhong. More interestingly, there are a number of descendants of veteran revolutionaries involved in the organization -- including Zhu Yulai, son of former premier Zhu Rongji, and Liu Lefei, son of former Politburo member Liu Yunshan.

Uphold free speech

Renee Xia, head of the overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network, called on Twitter to uphold free speech.

She said that the company has already issued "blue tick" symbols to accounts operated by the ruling Chinese Communist Party regime, including the Chinese foreign ministry, state-run Xinhua news agency, and the People's Daily, the official mouthpiece of the ruling party.

"One of Twitter ’s certification criteria is that [blue-tick accounts] should work for the public good," Xia said. "How can you certify a government agency that monitors people's internet use and suppresses freedom of expression? Twitter needs to do more."

Xia cited the recent detention of former journalist Zhang Jialong, who was tried on public order charges for comments made on social media this month.

"The vast majority of the Chinese people cannot use Twitter freely and legally, but Chinese officials can illegally obtain Zhang Jialong's comments on Twitter," Xia said.

Reported by Ng Yik-tung and Sing Man for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Zheng Chongsheng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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