Mon, Apr 01, 2019 - Page 7 News List

Google’s AI work in China triggers criticism from Washington

Company staff are to brief the Senate’s Homeland Security Committee, while the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff is reportedly to meet with Sundar Pichai

By Mark Bergen  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Yusha

When Google’s boss sits down with a top US military official on Wednesday, the conversation will likely center on Google’s presence in China — particularly a lab that might be more trouble for the company than it is worth.

Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Alphabet’s Google, is to meet in Washington with General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to a person familiar with the situation.

The Internet giant extended the invitation after criticism from Dunford about Google’s artificial intelligence (AI) work in China, which he said “indirectly benefits the Chinese military.”

Dunford cited an AI lab that Google opened in Beijing in late 2017.

Less than two years later, the small office is causing a massive headache for Google, sitting at the locus of a collision between the company’s global ambitions and the US military’s mounting unease over China’s technical might.

A spokesman for the US Department of Defense confirmed that Dunford is scheduled to meet with a senior Google official this week, but declined to provide further details.

Representatives from Google did not respond to requests for comment.

Google will also brief staff of the US Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs today about its work in China and with the Pentagon, according to a spokesman for the committee chairman, US Senator Ron Johnson.

The conflict is a risk to Google’s cloud-computing business, which relies on the company’s AI prowess and is a major source of future revenue growth outside of advertising.

The Pentagon and China are huge potential buyers of Internet-based services, a multibillion-dollar market. Google’s chief rivals in the cloud business, and Microsoft Corp, have aggressively courted both buyers.

However, Google has not. In the past year, the Mountain View, California-based company bowed out of an AI contract with the Pentagon while expanding its search for new businesses in China.

Those simultaneous moves were met with fevered backlash in Washington.

Lawmakers grilled Google about its plans in China and the Pentagon, concerned about China’s national investment in AI technology, has launched a public campaign to shame the company.

Two weeks ago, Google issued a statement saying it “was not working with the Chinese military” after US President Donald Trump criticized the company in a tweet on March 16.

Google withdrew its search engine and most other services from China in 2010, citing censorship concerns, but has maintained advertising sales and software-engineering offices there.

By the time Google opened its Beijing lab, the company had just sealed a deal that underscored its willingness to work with the US military.

In September 2017, Google was awarded portions of a contract for Project Maven, a Pentagon initiative to use image-recognition technology to analyze drone footage, according to a report in Gizmodo.

Two months later, Google announced the Beijing AI center. Like many decisions at the company, this was driven by a desire to hire the best coders. Google has spent the past five years signaling to investors and the public that it is the world’s leading AI company, but it needs talented engineers to maintain this lead.

“AI and its benefits have no borders,” Li Feifei (李飛飛), the Google executive then running the Beijing lab, wrote in a 2017 blog post announcing the center. “And we want to work with the best AI talent, wherever that talent is, to achieve it.”

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