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In a provocative op-ed in the New York Times last week, PayPal and Palantir founder Peter Thiel argued that artificial intelligence is “a military technology.” So, he asks, why are companies like Google and Microsoft, which have opened research labs in China to recruit Chinese researchers for their cutting-edge AI research, “sharing it with a rival”?

Thiel’s op-ed caused a big splash in the AI community and frustrated experts in both AIand US-China relations. An outspoken Trump backer, Thiel has been a leading voice pushing for tech to be more aligned with what he sees as America’s defense interests — and his messages have been influential among conservative intellectuals.

Critics pointed out that Thiel had failed to disclose that his company, Palantir, has defense contracts with the US government totaling more than $1 billion, and that he might benefit from portraying AI as a military technology (a characterization of AI that experts dispute). Other critics noted that he gets basic facts about China wrong, such as that Chinese law “mandates that all research done in China be shared with the People’s Liberation Army,” which is not true at all. 

But the op-ed resonated nonetheless. Why? Well, because members of the global AI community are grappling with the powerful technology they’re developing. And when it comes to China, they are grappling in particular with the ways that government has embraced the technology to increase authoritarian control of the population and commit atrocities like the mass internment of Uighurs.

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