Google boss, Pentagon brass meet over firm's AI lab in China

SAN FRANCISCO • Google's boss was expected to sit down with a top US military officer yesterday and the conversation will likely centre on the tech giant's presence in China, particularly a lab that may be more trouble for the company than it is worth.

Mr Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Alphabet Inc's Google, and General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were to meet in Washington, according to a person familiar with the situation.

The Internet firm extended the invitation after criticism from Gen Dunford about Google's artificial intelligence (AI) work in China, which he said "indirectly benefits the Chinese military".

Gen Dunford cited an AI lab that Google opened in Beijing in late 2017.

Less than two years later, the small office is causing a massive headache for Google, sitting at the locus of a collision between the company's global ambitions and the US military's mounting unease over China's technical might.

A spokesman for the Defence Department confirmed that Gen Dunford is scheduled to meet a senior Google official this week, but declined to provide further details.

Representatives from Google did not respond to requests for comment.

Google will also brief staff of the Homeland Security Committee on Monday about the meeting with Gen Dunford, according to a spokesman for the committee chairman, Senator Ron Johnson.

The conflict is a risk to Google's cloud-computing business, which relies on the company's AI prowess and is a major source of future revenue growth outside of advertising.

Both the Pentagon and China are huge potential buyers of Internet-based services, a multibillion-dollar market.

Google's chief rivals in the cloud business, Amazon.com and Microsoft, have aggressively courted both buyers.

But Google has not.

In the past year, the California-based company bowed out of an AI contract with the Pentagon while expanding its search for new businesses in China.

Those simultaneous moves were met with fevered backlash in Washington.

Lawmakers grilled Google about its plans in China, and the Pentagon, concerned about China's national investment in AI technology, has launched a public campaign to shame the company.

A week ago, Google issued a statement saying it "was not working with the Chinese military" after US President Donald Trump criticised the company in a tweet on March 16.

Google withdrew its search engine and most other services from China in 2010, citing censorship concerns, but has maintained advertising sales and software engineering offices there.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2019, with the headline 'Google boss, Pentagon brass meet over firm's AI lab in China'. Print Edition | Subscribe