US blacklists Chinese tech company funding research at Queen's

Artificial intelligence giant iFlyTek, accused of human rights abuses, has research deal with University

Queen's has stood behind its funding deals with controversial Chinese tech companies.
Journal File Photo
Citing human rights abuses, the United States placed iFlyTek, a Chinese technology company currently funding research at Queen’s, on its trading blacklist on Oct. 7, halting the company’s work with American firms.
First reported by The Logic on Sept. 5, Queen’s has entered into three research deals with controversial Chinese tech companies, two with Huawei and one with iFlyTek. The projects are valued at a combined $1.1 million.
Earlier this year, before iFlytek was blacklisted by the US, multiple American universities severed ties with the company over its relationship with police in the Xianjin region of China, where more than one million Uighur Muslims are reported to be held in detention camps. Specializing in speech recognition and artificial intelligence, iFlyTek has reportedly worked with Chinese police to establish a national database of voice patterns. 
The research project supported by iFlyTek at Queen’s—valued at $727,000—involves developing deep learning modelling that detects and processes speech. Xiaodan Zhu, an assistant professor of computer engineering who leads the project, declined to answer questions when contacted by The Logic. 
According to Reuters, a subsidiary of iFlyTek sold 25 voice-collection systems to police in the Xianjin region in 2016. The next year, another subsidiary entered into a partnership with the region’s prison administration bureau. Human rights activists say the company’s voiceprint technology can be used to track unique signatures in a person’s voice.
“Queen’s is very aware of the broader concerns around national security that have been a focus of public dialogue regarding relations with China,” Mark Erdman, Queen's community relations and issues manager, wrote in a statement to The Journal. “In undertaking any research partnerships, we ensure that work is done in full compliance with all applicable Canadian laws and directives.”
“On issues of national security, we take direction from the federal government. To date there have been no directives given in regards to research partnerships with companies from China.”

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