China’s A.I. Advances Help Its Tech Industry, and State Security

Liu Qingfeng, the chairman of iFlyTek, after his presentation at a conference in Beijing about artificial intelligence. Credit Giulia Marchi for The New York Times

BEIJING — During President Trump’s visit to Beijing, he appeared on screen for a special address at a tech conference.

First he spoke in English. Then he switched to Mandarin Chinese.

Mr. Trump doesn’t speak Chinese. The video was a publicity stunt, designed to show off the voice capabilities of iFlyTek, a Chinese artificial intelligence company with both innovative technology and troubling ties to Chinese state security. IFlyTek has said its technology can monitor a car full of people or a crowded room, identify a targeted individual’s voice and record everything that person says.

“IFlyTek,” the image of Mr. Trump said in Chinese, “is really fantastic.”

As China tests the frontiers of artificial intelligence, iFlyTek serves as a compelling example of both the country’s sci-fi ambitions and the technology’s darker dystopian possibilities.

The Chinese company uses sophisticated A.I. to power image and voice recognition systems that can help doctors with their diagnoses, aid teachers in grading tests and let drivers control their cars with their voices. Even some global companies are impressed: Delphi, a major American auto supplier, offers iFlyTek’s technology to carmakers in China, while Volkswagen plans to build the Chinese company’s speech recognition technology into many of its cars in China next year.

At the same time, iFlyTek hosts a laboratory to develop voice surveillance capabilities for China’s domestic security forces. In an October report, a human rights group said the company was helping the authorities compile a biometric voice database of Chinese citizens that could be used to track activists and others.

Those tight ties with the government could give iFlyTek and other Chinese companies an edge in an emerging new field. China’s financial support and its loosely enforced and untested privacy laws give Chinese companies considerable resources and access to voices, faces and other biometric data in vast quantities, which could help them develop their technologies, experts say.


Crowds looking at products displayed at the National Convention Center during the IFlyTek conference.CreditGiulia Marchi for The New York Times

China “does not have the stringent privacy laws that Western companies have, nor are Chinese citizens against having their data collected, as (arguably speaking) government monitoring is a fact of China,” analysts with the research firm Sanford C. Bernstein wrote in a report in November.

Already, China’s companies have at times edged out foreign rivals. IFlyTek has won major competitions for speech recognition and translation. Two years before Microsoft did, Baidu, the Chinese internet search company, created software capable of matching human skills at understanding speech. This year the Shanghai-based start-up Yitu took first place in a major facial recognition contest run by the United States government.

IFlyTek and other Chinese companies say they follow China’s laws and protect user data. But they agree that the sheer number of users in China, plus the government’s single-minded drive to dominate the new technology, puts them at an advantage.

“China has entered the artificial intelligence age together with the U.S.,” said Liu Qingfeng, iFlyTek’s chairman, at the Beijing conference. “But due to the advantage of a huge amount of users and China’s social governance, A.I. will develop faster and spread from China to the world.”

An iFlyTek spokeswoman said the company had yet to receive required permission from officials in Anhui, the Chinese province where it is based, to speak with the foreign news media.

IFlyTek is portrayed in the Chinese media both as a technology innovator and as an ally of the government. Last year iFlyTek helped prevent the loss of about $75 million in telecommunications fraud by helping the police target scammers, according to The Global Times, a nationalist tabloid controlled by the Communist Party. Its article quotes a Chinese security official as saying collecting voice patterns is like taking fingerprints or recording people with closed-circuit television cameras, meaning the practice does not violate their privacy.


A crowd at the IFlyTek conference. CreditGiulia Marchi for The New York Times

“We work with the Ministry of Public Security to pin down the criminals,” said Liu Junfeng, the general manager of the company’s automotive business, at a conference in September.

Where iFlyTek gets its data is not clear. But one of its owners is China Mobile, the state-controlled cellular network giant, which has more than 800 million subscribers. IFlyTek preloads its products on millions of China Mobile phones and runs the hotline service for China Mobile, which did not respond to a request for comment.

“Data is gold,” said Anil Jain, a professor who studies biometrics at Michigan State University. “These days you cannot design an accurate and robust recognition system for anything” without data.

Cars could be another major market, iFlyTek believes. China is pioneering a push into self-driving cars, which could heavily depend on voice technology. In September, iFlyTek introduced a new product, a glowing ellipsoid that mounts on a dashboard and listens for questions that it can check online, like a car-mounted Siri.

“We have to understand if the car is our friend, if there is an emotional connection,” Mr. Liu said.

Through a third-party supplier, a few hundred thousand of the four million cars that the Volkswagen Group sells in China annually will be equipped next year with iFlyTek voice recognition technology, said Christoph Ludewig, a spokesman for the German automaker. Volkswagen said it requires that any data gathered from drivers is kept anonymous.


A video cameraman recording at the IFlyTek conference. CreditGiulia Marchi for The New York Times

“Volkswagen will protect customers from the misuse of their data,” Mr. Ludewig said.

Delphi, the American auto parts giant, said it had a relationship with iFlyTek to offer its services in China but declined to disclose details.

Mr. Liu, the head of iFlyTek’s automotive business, said that the company’s systems would be installed next year in some Jeeps sold in China and that it was developing automotive voice systems with Daimler, which owns the Mercedes-Benz brand. FiatChrysler, Jeep’s parent, said it had not found any of its suppliers using iFlytek. A Daimler spokeswoman said that the company was regularly in discussions with potential suppliers but declined to say if iFlyTek was one of them.

Human rights groups worry that such rapidly evolving capabilities will be abused by China’s autocratic government.

“The Chinese government has been collecting the voice patterns of tens of thousands of people with little transparency about the program or laws regulating who can be targeted or how that information is going to be used,” Sophie Richardson, Human Rights Watch’s China director, wrote in a report in October.

In its home province of Anhui, iFlyTek has assembled a database of 70,000 voice patterns, according to the report, which also said that the police had begun collecting records of voice patterns as they would fingerprints. The report cited as one example three women suspected of being sex workers whose voices were registered in a database, it said, in part because they had been arrested in Anhui.

The local Chinese media has also reported about a new plan in Anhui to scan voice calls automatically for the voice-prints of wanted criminals, and alert the police if they are detected.

IFlyTek did not respond to requests for comment on the Human Rights Watch report but has said its data-gathering efforts will not stop, particularly as it participates in China’s push to develop self-driving cars.

“We are always talking about big data — the vehicle produces many images every day,” said Mr. Liu, the iFlyTek automotive executive.

Follow Paul Mozur and Keith Bradsher on Twitter, @paulmozur and @KeithBradsher.

Paul Mozur reported from Beijing and Keith Bradsher from Tianjin and Guangzhou, China. Ailin Tang contributed research from Beijing and Carolyn Zhang from Shanghai.

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