AI, Policy

FBI Prosecutes Chinese AI Scientist As Sino-US Tech Rivalry Escalates

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Ning Xi, a veteran robotics expert, was charged by the FBI for fraud last week.

For the hundreds of thousands Chinese scientists trained overseas returning home, there is now a more palpable concern when making this increasingly popular career move. As the FBI accused a top Chinese AI expert for fraud last week, the action was interpreted by China as part of a "technology cold war" waged by the U.S. against the country and its top scientists.

Ning Xi, a veteran robotics expert, was charged in the United States with defrauding Michigan State University with US$420,000 false expense claims during a five-year period while he worked at the American university. Xi, arrested last week near the Michigan State campus, is accused of defrauding the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers as well.

Xi was the former director of Michigan State’s Robotics and Automation Laboratory, and worked there for 15 years until leaving the university in 2015. Xi reportedly left Michigan State in 2011 for a couple of years and became affiliated with the University of Hong Kong. He returned back in the U.S. in 2014 and resigned from Michigan State in 2015. As of today, Xi was listed as professor, Chair of Robotics and Automation at the University of Hong Kong.

In another case, a former research oceanographer Chunzai Wang in the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce, has been sentenced last week for accepting a salary from China.

According to court documents, Chunzai Wang, 56, of Miami, was one of the foremost experts on ocean-atmosphere interaction, climate change, and hurricanes in the world. While a NOAA/AOML employee, Wang knowingly and willfully received a salary for his services as an employee of NOAA/AOML from China’s Changjiang Scholars Program, according to documents posted on the website of United States Department of Justice.

Beginning in 2010 and while employed at NOAA, Wang entered into contractual agreements to work on China’s Changjiang Scholars Program, Thousand Talents Program, and was also involved in China’s 973 Program, which mobilizes scientific talents to strengthen basic research in line with national strategic targets of China, said the document. Wang was sentenced to a term of time served.

The actions have been interpreted by the Chinese government as part of a "technology cold war" waged by the U.S., after it blocked deals by Chinese companies to buy American tech firms and "discriminated" against Chinese corporations operating in the U.S. The U.S. reaction is driven by anxiety of the American government on the rapid development of China’s artificial intelligence industry, said Chinese media reports.

"Most Americans, to speak frankly, do not wish to see a strong China," Baidu’s chief operating officer Lu Qi said during an interview with Chinese state TV station last year. "The two countries are rivalries to a certain extent."

In Chinese Q&A forum Zhihu, a user commented that "it is difficult to imagine a prominent professor like Xi would defraud any university for such small amount of money. With his stature, he could make money faster doing anything else. He was investigated by Michigan State since 2014, initially for accepting teaching roles in Hong Kong. Now the crime has shifted to fraud. It feels like there must be something else in play."

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