How a Chinese AI giant made chatting—and surveillance—easy

wiredThis post was originally published by Mara Hvistendahl at Wired - Backchannel

Consumer products are important to iFlytek, but about 60 percent of its profits come from what is described in the company’s 2019 semiannual report as “projects involving government subsidies.” These include an “intelligent criminal investigation assistant system,” as well as big data support for the Shanghai city government.

Such projects bring access to data. “That might be everything that’s recorded in a court proceeding, call center data, a bunch of security stuff,” says Jeffrey Ding, a scholar at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute who studies AI governance in China. Liu, iFlytek’s founder and CEO, is a delegate to the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp parliament. “He has a very good relationship with the government,” Du says.

Liu has a vision that voice computing will someday penetrate every sphere of society. He recently told an interviewer for an online state media video channel: “It will be everywhere, as common as water and electricity.” That’s a dream that aligns neatly with the Chinese Communist Party’s vision for a surveillance state.

One day this past fall, I tested out a recent model of the Translator, an instant translation device made by iFlytek, with a man I’ll call Al Cheng. The Translator, a device powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon chip, works offline for major world languages.

Cheng and his wife live in a congested city in southern China, but every other year they travel to the Midwest to visit family. To get exercise, they walk half a mile each morning to the mall. But Cheng, who likes to hold forth on art and culture in Mandarin, Cantonese, and Hakka, does not speak any English. Much of the time while in the US, he is unhappily silent. He is exactly the sort of person who needs a Translator.

I met Cheng one morning in the mall’s central atrium, near an antique Chevrolet pickup truck that held hay and flowers. (“Chrysanthemums,” Cheng noted, approvingly.) When I told him the price of the Translator (around $400), he was skeptical. “Too expensive,” he said, shaking his head. But as we sat down outside Caribou Coffee to play around with it, his skepticism gave way to admiration. We held the device alongside the Baidu Translate app on his phone, taking turns speaking phrases in various languages in an attempt to stump it.

In Mandarin, the Translator understood that Cheng’s accented “mingnisuda” was Minnesota. It got my name, despite Cheng pronouncing it “Mala.” When I spoke English, both translation tools could handle the metaphor “I’m feeling blue,” but only the Translator got that “I got up on the wrong side of the bed” was about my mood, not where I placed my feet. The most magical moment came when Cheng recited a couplet from the eighth-century poet Zhang Jiuling. Baidu translated the lines, nonsensically, as “At sea, the moon and the moon are at this time.” The Translator offered up an accurate and genuinely poetic translation:

As the bright moon shines over the sea; / From far away you share this moment with me.

When Cheng switched to Cantonese, the results were more mixed. (The Translator understood an idiom for the “English language” as “chicken farm.”) But the mere fact that the device supported the language impressed him.

iFlytek’s translation mission goes far beyond helping travelers, business people, and urban elites. It has developed products for ethnic minorities and people in rural areas where many people do not speak Mandarin, and it is constantly improving its handling of dialects. In 2017 it launched what it calls the Dialect Protection Plan. When I first came across a news report about it, I laughed out loud at the Orwellian name.

The Chinese Communist Party has spent decades attacking language noun by noun, verb by verb—censoring terms it deems dangerous, undermining dialects and minority languages, and bludgeoning Mandarin with ideological drivel. (The Chinese cultural critic Li Tuo dubbed such clunky phrasing Maospeak, in reference to the Newspeak of 1984.) Tech companies have aided in the assault on language.

An iFlytek spokesperson said in an email that the goal of the company’s work on dialects was to “protect our ways of communication.” iFlytek has devoted special attention to Uighur and Tibetan, which are spoken by ethnic minorities that have been singled out for persecution by Beijing. China Daily reported that in one promotion for the Dialect Protection Plan, executives encouraged users of iFlytek Input to record themselves speaking their native language, in exchange for a chance to win an iPhone.

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