Queen’s University signs research deals with two controversial Chinese tech giants

Ontario Hall at Queen’s University during orientation week Iain Sherriff-Scott/The Logic

Queen’s University has signed three research deals with controversial Chinese tech giants, two with Huawei and one with iFlytek for a combined $1.1 million, The Logic has learned.

The university is standing behind the funding partnerships, which include artificial intelligence (AI) and speech-detection research, despite a national security warning from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) about working with Huawei. A number of U.S. universities have recently cancelled their partnerships with iFlytek over its work with Chinese police, which includes building a national database of voice patterns.

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Talking Point

Queen’s University has signed two research deals with Huawei and one with iFlytek, worth a combined $1.1 million. The deals come amid diplomatic tensions between Canada and China, and as U.S. universities are cancelling partnerships with the firms.

Bhavin Shastri, assistant professor of engineering and applied physics at Queen’s, confirmed via phone that he is the lead researcher for one of the Huawei-funded projects, but declined to answer any other questions. 

Shastri leads a joint project between Queen’s and the University of British Columbia backed with $267,500 in funding from Huawei for the former university. The project is focused on neuromorphic photonic circuits, which are designed to support neural networks and high-performance computing. It aims to make the technology scalable.

The university also received about $727,000 from iFlytek, a Chinese natural language-processing and AI giant with a market value of over US$9 billion. It’s one of a handful of firms the U.S. has considered adding to its export blacklist. The money iFlytek is giving Queen’s is for a three-year project led by Xiaodan Zhu, an assistant professor of computer engineering at Queen’s, to develop deep learning modeling that detects and processes speech.

Zhu confirmed he is the lead researcher on the project, but declined to answer further questions. 

Reuters reported in June that a subsidiary of iFlytek has business ties to police and prison bureau administrators in the Xinjiang region of China, where more than one million Uighur Muslims and other ethnic minorities are being held in detention camps. In 2016, an iFlytek subsidiary sold 25 voice-collection systems to police in the region. The year after, another subsidiary of the company entered into an agreement with the prison administration bureau in Xinjiang. The company’s voiceprint technology can identify unique signatures in a person’s voice, which human rights activists have said can be used to track people.

In May, The Globe and Mail reported that a federal research funding-agency was trying to screen out people with “strong political opinions” on Huawei to help assess a new potential partnership between Huawei and the University of Laval. The same month, the Vancouver Sun reported that UBC is continuing with two other Huawei-funded projects this year worth a combined $219,750. And, according to a spreadsheet UBC provided to The Logic, the university has approved 16 projects with support from Huawei since 2017, totalling over $7.8 million in contributions, though the partnership with Queen’s does not appear on the sheet.

Queen’s did not specify who is leading the second project, for which Huawei is providing about $131,000 in funding. It aims to make power systems for data centres—like those that manage telecommunication networks—more efficient.

iFlytek and Huawei did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In May 2018, The Globe and Mail reported that the company had established a network of partnerships with Canadian research universities, allowing Huawei to secure patents related to 5G technology. The company spent $180 million in Canadian R&D in 2018, about 10 per cent of which was put toward projects with academics. Queen’s said Huawei will not secure patents as part of its research partnerships with the school. 

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The U15 Group of Canadian Research Universities, which represents Canada’s 15 largest research schools, has several members with research agreements with Huawei. CSIS cautioned the group about collaborating with the company at an October 2018 meeting in Ottawa. UBC and Queen’s are U15 members. In January, The Queen’s Journal reported that Huawei had approved one research project with the university. 

“Queen’s and the other U15 members regularly meet with representatives from Canada’s intelligence and security community as a matter of course to discuss issues of relevance to the sector,” said Kimberly Woodhouse, vice-principal of research at Queen’s, who attended the October 2018 meeting on behalf of the university. 

“Should the government change its directives or regulations regarding our global research efforts, the university would absolutely comply with their direction while respecting any legal obligations we have already undertaken,” said Woodhouse.