Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. has hired lobbyists in Ottawa to discuss artificial intelligence research in Canada and how the government supports foreign investment – a sign the company is seeking to further benefit from Canadian expertise in a branch of computing science vital to technology companies and to China itself.
The Chinese government has called artificial intelligence (AI) “a strategic technology,” and has said it wants to make China into the world’s primary AI innovation centre by 2030. The technology has economic value, but also importance for social governance and national defence, China’s plan for AI development says.
According to the federal lobbyists’ registry, earlier this year, Huawei tasked Joe Jordan, a former parliamentary secretary to prime minister Jean Chrétien, with lobbying the federal government about “the location of an artificial-intelligence research centre in Canada.” Mr. Jordan works for Bluesky Strategy Group, an Ottawa-based lobbying firm. He and Bluesky co-founder Tim Barber give a Huawei artificial-intelligence research centre as an objective in their listings with the federal Registry of Lobbyists.
In a reply to an e-mailed request for comment, Mr. Jordan declined to discuss his work for clients.
Huawei told The Globe and Mail this week it has abandoned the plan for a dedicated AI centre. But “our presence in Canada will continue to grow because we’re always looking for ways to bolster the size of our Canadian team, especially in emerging industries like AI,” said Alykhan Velshi, vice-president of corporate affairs for Huawei Technologies Canada.
“At Huawei, we view AI as general technology that requires on-going fundamental research,” he said. Fundamental research is exploratory work to expand the base of knowledge on a subject, and may be used later in commercial or applied research to solve practical problems.
Critics say expansion of Huawei’s investment in AI research in Canada is “deeply problematic,” given the potential value of the technology in building better tools for military use and authoritarian surveillance and control.
The company has made artificial intelligence a central research objective, saying the technology can be used to make smarter processing chips, more sophisticated cloud services and even more efficient equipment maintenance. Founder Ren Zhengfei has repeatedly spoken about Canada’s leadership in artificial intelligence, pointing to researchers at Canadian institutions he calls the “fathers” of the field. In an interview last year, he told The Globe and Mail the company would like to make Canada its global centre for theoretical research.
Huawei has already hired researchers in Edmonton, Toronto and Montreal to advance its artificial intelligence work in the country, through a project it calls the “Noah’s Ark lab,” which also includes four locations in mainland China, one in Hong Kong and two in London and Paris.
Yanhui Geng, the director of Huawei Noah’s Ark Lab Canada, is based in Montreal. The company partners with McGill University, the University of Waterloo, the University of Montreal and Mila, the Quebec AI Institute. Noah’s Ark Lab Canada works on helping computers to better understand human speech, training more effective computer vision and building better tools for “large-scale data mining,” according to Mr. Geng’s LinkedIn. A presentation made by the lab says it has worked on computer translation and the use of AI to better manage data networks.
As The Globe reported in June, 2018, the company has established a vast network of relationships with leading research-heavy universities in Canada to create a steady pipeline of intellectual property that the company is using to underpin its market position in 5G technology.
The 2018 arrest in Vancouver of Mr. Ren’s daughter, Meng Wanzhou, the company’s chief financial officer, set damaging events in motion. China subsequently arrested two Canadians – Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor – and sentenced two others to death, in addition to blocking imports of some Canadian agricultural goods.
But Huawei has continued to expand its investment in Canada, where the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau has yet to make a decision on whether to follow the lead of key allies in banning the Chinese firm’s gear from next-generation 5G wireless networks. Both the United States and Australia say Huawei answers to China’s ruling Communist Party and could be compelled to help Beijing spy on or sabotage Western networks.
However, Canadian telecommunications companies have said they will proceed largely using equipment from other providers. Huawei’s Canadian R&D staff has grown by 25 per cent since 2018, the year Ms. Meng was arrested, and the company is hiring for several artificial-intelligence jobs in Canada, including researchers in natural-language processing and computer vision.
Mr. Ren has pointed to artificial intelligence as a technology that stands to bring about some of most important changes to human life in coming decades.
Richard Fadden, a former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service who was a national security adviser to Mr. Trudeau and Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, said the intellectual property created by any of Huawei’s artificial-intelligence research in Canada would certainly be funnelled back to China.
He said it would be ill advised for Canada to build further research links with China on AI given the significant erosion in relations between the Asian country and the West.
“For both Canada and China, artificial intelligence is a strategic field, and given that we have a variety of concerns about China, and given Huawei’s relationship with China, I am not sure it’s the best possible field to develop a collaboration with Huawei right now.”
Mr. Fadden said Huawei appears to be expanding its economic footprint in Canada to make it harder for the Canadian government to exclude it from 5G.
“Over all, I think it’s an attempt on the part of Huawei to build a variety of links with Canada to make it more and more difficult for the government of Canada to say, ‘No, you can’t do 5G here.’ ”
Huawei says it is a private company that operates independently. Chinese scholars argue that computer learning is such an important frontier, with such broad possibilities to change industries and economies, that international co-operation is necessary.
AI “will definitely bring big challenges to humanity, and all humans, no matter where they are from, stand equal before it," said Wu Fei, director of the AI research centre at Zhejiang University. "This challenging future is something we must handle together.”
He said development of AI technology “has reached a stage we can call ‘bravely entering no man’s land.’ It requires experts of all fields and companies in different countries to work together and overcome the uncertainties.”
But critics point to the Chinese laws that obligate locally headquartered companies to co-operate with intelligence agencies. At the same time, numerous central policy documents have made clear that Beijing sees artificial intelligence as an enabler of future economic growth, and crucial for China to attain global dominance.
“The Chinese leadership has made no secret of a national ambition to really control the commanding heights of frontier technologies,” said Rory Medcalf, a former Australian diplomat and intelligence analyst who is head of the National Security College at Australian National University. And AI, ”in particular, enables a whole host of security and defence advantages, both in the surveillance and suppression of populations, and in warfare.”
He sees two choices for Western countries where Chinese companies are conducting such research and development: Either subject it to constant government scrutiny – or stop it altogether, which he called ”fundamental quarantining of engagement with China in these technologies in the future.”
Chinese companies, including Huawei, have “to be seen in more Cold War competition concepts,” said Peter Jennings, a former high-ranking defence and national security adviser in Australia who is now executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a security policy think tank.
“The benefit to humanity of global research [in AI] is offset by this intense Chinese push to become dominant in these technology areas, and then to apply the technology to military purposes,” he said. “The Canadian government should really be treating this one with extreme caution.”
Mr. Jennings expressed shock that the Trudeau government has not taken a stronger line against Chinese influence, or Huawei’s 5G technology. That has provided China an opportunity to target Canada among members of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance, he said.
“Frankly, they’re looking for the weakest link in the alliance chain.”
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