Elon Musk has called artificial intelligence (AI) an “existential threat” to humanity’s survival, so you would think that the United States would be doing everything it can to ensure it is at the forefront of AI research, or, at the very least, make sure that kind of dangerous technology doesn’t fall into the hands of our nation’s enemies.
But the Pentagon seems to see things differently.
According to a bombshell report in Newsweek, the U.S. government forked over at least $30 million in federal grants “for research led by a scientist who is now at the forefront of China’s race to develop the most advanced artificial intelligence—which he compared to the atomic bomb due to its military importance.”
At the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), Song-Chun Zhu directed a “pioneering AI center” that was receiving Pentagon funding, Newsweek explains.
That funding continued, the outlet reports, “even as he set up a parallel institute near Wuhan, took a position at a Beijing university whose primary goal is to support Chinese military research, and joined a Chinese Communist Party ‘talent plan’ whose members are tasked with transferring knowledge and technology to China.”
According to Newsweek, the revelations gleaned from its investigation “underline how the United States, with its open academic environment, has not only been a source for China of advanced technology with military applications but has also actively collaborated with and funded scientists from its main rival.”
In response to questions from the outlet regarding Zhu’s funding, the Department of Defense defended international collaboration, arguing that it offers the U.S. the opportunity to recruit the best minds on the planet — including those from China.
One federal agency that awarded Zhu with millions of dollars in grants — the National Science Foundation (NSF) — began in 2022 using new analytics tools to better identify potential conflicts of interest.
“The foreign collaborations and affiliations of Song-Chun Zhu were identified and reported to the intelligence community and law enforcement,” NSF’s chief of Research Security Strategy and Policy, Rebecca Keiser, told Newsweek. “The NSF became aware of these national security and research security risks near the end range of this scientist’s funding.”
Zhu, to Newsweek’s knowledge, has not been accused of breaking any U.S. law. However, neither Zhu, Zhu’s research center, nor the Chinese embassy in Washington D.C. responded to the outlet’s requests for comment.
During its investigation, Newsweek examined “federal grants databases, scientific papers, reports from Chinese and U.S. universities and companies, and Chinese local government announcements.”
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — better known as “DARPA,” — the Navy, and the Army were among Zhu’s key donors.
Most of the federal grants awarded to Zhu, a professor of statistics and computing, were in the decade before 2020, the year he returned to China after 18 years at UCLA’s Center for Vision, Cognition, Learning and Autonomy.
But two grants included the year 2021: one was for $699,938 to develop “high-level robot autonomy” that was “important for DoD tasks, such as autonomous robots, search and rescue missions,” according to the Department of Defense’s grants website.
Another, for $520,811, aimed to build “cognitive robot platforms” for “intelligence and surveillance systems via ground and aerial sensors.” Zhu was named as principal investigator on both grants awarded by the Office of Naval Research.
The Center for Research Security & Integrity is a Washington-based non-profit dedicated to mitigating the risk to research from U.S. adversaries.
Its director, Jeffrey Stoff, explained that China routinely takes advantage of U.S. funding.
“China has built a vast system to extract technology and know-how from US federally funded research,” Stoff told Newsweek.
“Compounding this problem,” he continued, is double-dipping, where recipients of federal research dollars like Zhu also take Chinese government funding for the same research and divert efforts for China’s benefit.”
Surpassing the U.S. and its allies in technology and capabilities has long been a stated goal of China’s leaders for the People’s Liberation Army.
“AI is a core part of that,” according to Newsweek, “with China aiming to outdo the U.S. in multiple spheres of power including economic and geopolitical by the mid-century, as Chinese leader Xi Jinping pursues what he calls ‘changes unseen in a century’—and strengthens ties with other U.S. rivals such as Russia and Iran.”
Former President Donald Trump, in 2020, issued a ban on Chinese graduate students who have ties to the military, and, on Oct. 30, President Joe Biden signed an executive order “to ensure that America leads the way” in AI.
“Underlining Western concerns,” Newsweek reports, “the heads of the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence-sharing network of the U.S., Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand made an unprecedented joint appearance in mid-October to warn that massive technology extraction by China was putting the U.S. and the West at a military, economic and security disadvantage, threatening its leadership in science and innovation.”
Former U.S. Secretary of State and current director of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, Condoleezza Rice, asked at the event, “What if Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union had won the nuclear race instead of the United States?”
“We might have lived in a very different world,” she stated.
Since returning to China in 2020, Zhu, in a proposal submitted to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a top political body of which he is a member, Zhu said AI’s influence “is equivalent to the ‘atomic bomb’ in the information technology field.”
“If our country can take the lead in realizing a truly universal intelligence,” he said, “it will become the ‘winner’ of the international technological competition.”
“He is an expert in AI disciplines deemed of critical import to the U.S., which is why he received so much Department of Defense and other federal research funding,” Stoff said of Zhu. “However, I question what the U.S. government gained from its extensive investment in Zhu since he established a research institute and companies in China whose key personnel were trained by him as PhD students and postdocs.”
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