Business

Chinese AI courts New Zealand

This week, China’s largest Artificial Intelligence company came to Auckland looking to hook up with local firms and develop strategic partnerships.

But at a time when New Zealanders are calling for more social accountability from big tech firms, will iFLYTEK address its links to the surveillance of Uighur Muslims?

Vanita Prasad reports.

For a company valued at $15 billion, Chinese AI heavyweight iFLYTEK kept its wallet tucked away when it came to its presence on its AI-Day debut.

While other artificial intelligence firms like Qrious and Aware Group sought to impress with shiny interactive stalls and the usual tech conference carry-on, China’s largest AI enterprise went for something much more understated.

A cafe table display.

Only discernible by its branding on boxes on the table, iFlytek displayed a couple of its handheld translators - which can process up to 63 languages to and from Mandarin in real time - as well as a smart toy for children.

The modest offering belied the tech firm's emergence as a global leader in intelligent speech and language technology - something that became clearer once it took the stage.

Through its live translation and transcription technology the iFLYTEK delegation, who spoke in both English and Mandarin, had their speeches projected onto a screen in English in real time.

They even played one of their favourite conference crowd pleasers - a fake video of President Barack Obama, speaking enthusiastically about iFLYTEK (in English and Mandarin).

Gimmicks aside, iFLYTEK - ranked sixth on MIT Technology Review’s “50 Smartest Companies 2017” - has grown rapidly since its inception in 1999 and is one of four open AI firms in China.

Its speech technology, powered by AI and data analysis, is used widely by banks, insurance providers, telecommunications companies and has applications for healthcare and education.

Getting the company to the conference was seen as a coup by the conference organisers and New Zealand AI leaders keen to foster strategic relationships and break into the lucrative Chinese market.

It’s something iFLYTEK senior vice president chief financial officer Dawei Duan said they would also like to assist with.

But the AI firm is less willing to address allegations of its role in surveillance of the minority Uighur Muslim population in the Xinjiang province, where its estimated that about a million Uighurs are detained in forced labour camps.

As documented by the Wall Street Journal in 2017, the use of surveillance in Xinjiang has been a key method the Chinese government uses to build cases for arrests and detainment.

According to Chinese media and a report in the Nikkei Asian Review: “iFLYTEK AI has been used in criminal investigations, indictments and trials through work with more than 400 courts and 200 prosecutor's offices around China. AI has been used in language analysis in Sichuan Province, the Tibet Autonomous Region and the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.”

It’s reported over a million Muslim Uighurs, along with some ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz are in detention facilities, which China initially denied existed, then labelled vocational training facilities.

Human Rights Watch has raised concerns about iFLYTEK’s possible involvement in human rights violations by the Chinese government through its surveillance system which monitors communications and can “automatically identify targeted voices in phone conversations”

It an open letter to iFLYTEK sent in 2017, the organisation requested clarity about the company’s business relationship with the Ministry of Public Security, details of its mass automated voice recognition and whether the company has any human rights policies.

Human Rights Watch says almost two years later the company still hasn’t responded to the letter.

Speaking with the Nikkei Asian Business Review Hu Yu, iFLYTEK’s executive president acknowledged its work with the government and added that the company “cannot decide” on how its technology is used.

"Apple also sells its products to the US military.

“What we can do is to provide our technology," Hu said to Nikkei. "Our customers will decide how to do that. We have some relationship with them in national projects, but we are not in charge of that."

When questioned by Newsroom about iFLYTEK’s ethics policy, Duan said its philosophy could be summed up as “doing the right things for human beings”.

Duan said iFLYTEK uses its technology for education, healthcare and for industrial efficiencies. “It shows we are doing the right things for the human society”.

“For our company and I think for most AI companies we have a mind that AI should do the right things and help the people. A human orientation is our philosophy.”

No written policy was provided.

Addressing questions about whether iFLYEK has surveillance technology operating in the Xinjiang province, Duan at first said they did not operate there at all before offering: “I think we operate the education programme ... health care for the people.”

Duan then cut the interview short.

A senior Chinese researcher from Human Rights Watch provided Newsroom with documents they say show iFLYTEK to be the designated supplier for voice sample collection machinery to the Xinjiang police bureaus.

iFLYTEK’s New Zealand connections

iFLYTEK has signed a memorandum of understanding with New Zealand business incubator The Icehouse and has a funding agreement with Massey University. It also identified a relationship with Deloitte NZ.

The Icehouse chief executive Andrew Hamilton says the company was unaware of the allegations involving surveillance of Uighurs.

“As a values-based organisation and an organisation that was founded on partnership, we are always mindful of who we partner with to support our mission to empower Kiwi founders and business-owners to reach their potential.

“We take any issues that go to standing or legality seriously, and will watch for any developments.”

Massey University said it could not confirm if it was aware of the Human Rights Watch allegations by deadline and Deloitte did not respond to Newsroom’s questions.

NZ-China tech tensions

iFLYTEK’s latest courtship trip comes just as Prime Minister Jacinda Arden heads to China to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.

She has played down claims that relations with Beijing had soured following a string of perceived slights, including moves by the Government Communications Security Bureau to oppose Huawai Technologies’ equipment being used for the country’s planned 5G mobile network.

iFLYTEK is closely associated with Huawai after they struck a deal in 2000 for the AI firm to develop a system for call centre operators.

The treatment of China’s Uighur population was highlighted in New Zealand after the terror attack in Christchurch.

A Muslim women’s welfare group said it wanted to send back the money given to it by a wealthy Chinese businessman in wake of the attack, so it could be used to alleviate the plight of the Uighurs.

Yikun Zhang and his international associates gave the women’s group nearly $2 million.

Arden says she has previously raised the persecution of the Uighur people with the Chinese Government.

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