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The devil's bargain for AI companies working in China

A scale balancing binary code
Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

American tech companies and research institutions — involved in the development of artificial intelligence in both the U.S. and China — face elevated ethical questions as the two superpowers race for dominance in the field.

Why it matters: U.S. labs face the real possibility that collaborations with Chinese companies and universities will end up bolstering Beijing's goal of dominating global civilian and military AI.

What's going on: China’s prestigious Tsinghua University recently laid out a vision for how it will develop AI for military applications, flagging a close relationship between universities, private companies, and the armed forces.

  • In China, such collaborations are the default, but in the U.S., companies and institutions are still grappling with how willing they are to work with the military. Google recently withdrew from a Pentagon drone-surveillance program when some employees revolted.

The details: In a speech last month, You Zheng, a Tsinghua VP, described the university's role in what China calls civil–military fusion. The speech was translated into English by Elsa Kania of the Center for a New American Security.

  • Civil–military fusion is China's attempt "to build a leaner, nimbler defense industrial base that can harness innovations like AI," said Lorand Laskai, a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.
  • As part of a policy that comes from the top of the Chinese political leadership, research institutions like Tsinghua are expected to contribute breakthroughs that can be spun off into both commercial and military applications.

For U.S. researchers working in China, You's explanation raises questions about whether their projects could end up aiding the Chinese effort to beat the U.S. in AI.

Bob Work, the former deputy secretary of defense, remarked on the conflict at a Defense One event last month. "Google has a center in China, where they have a concept called civil–military fusion. Anything that’s going on in that center is going to be used by the military."

Google did not respond to requests for comment. But if U.S. labs do pull back from China, something might have to give, Kania said. Said Laskai: "If there’s enough blowback, I suspect we’ll see Chinese entities carefully consider whether they want to associate with initiatives like civil–military fusion."

"Universities like Tsinghua want a larger international profile, but that’s coming into conflict with its support for government objectives like civil–military fusion. The same is true with Chinese companies like Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent."
— Lorand Laskai, research associate, CFR

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