Lawmakers are rushing to try to understand how tens of millions of federal dollars were awarded to a top U.S.-based artificial intelligence scientist who subsequently returned home to China to conduct research for the communist government.
Song-Chun Zhu, 55, collected some $30 million in U.S. government grants before leaving UCLA in September 2020 for Beijing, according to House lawmakers. Since 2020, he has directed the Beijing Institute for General Artificial Intelligence (BIGAI) and leads an AI institute attached to two Beijing universities, according to his website.
The Republican chairs of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party and House Energy and Commerce Committee say they want answers about what the Department of Defense and National Science Foundation knew about Mr. Zhu and what he did with the public funding he received.
Reps. Mike Gallagher and Cathy McMorris Rodgers are leading an investigation seeking to know whether red flags were ever raised about Mr. Zhu’s participation in a Chinese talent attraction plan that aims to bring world-class Chinese-born researchers working overseas to come home. Lawmakers sent letters demanding details on the funding from the Pentagon, the NSF and UCLA earlier this month.
“U.S. government agencies ignored several concerning signs while awarding Mr. Zhu $30 million in grants,” the lawmakers wrote. “In 2010, for example, Mr. Zhu was appointed a member of the Thousand Talents Plan, a program run by the [Chinese Communist Party].”
American funding did not end when Mr. Zhu returned home to China. The Office of Naval Research provided a project once led by Mr. Zhu with $1.2 million for two grants in 2021, a year after his departure, according to the lawmakers’ letter.
Mr. Zhu’s AI work for China has grand ambitions. His BIGAI is not focused on large-language models such as those built by Google and OpenAI but on developing advanced AI systems capable of accomplishing tasks the systems were not taught to complete, according to Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology.
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The Beijing regime has identified AI as one of the emerging technologies of the 21st century that China wants to dominate in the coming decades. Mr. Zhu studied the new emerging field of AI while earning a Ph.D. in computer science from Harvard in 1996.
BIGAI is working on artificial general intelligence, researching the production of software that will use human-like reasoning capabilities and learn on its own. A Georgetown report from May 2023 said Mr. Zhu wants China to overhaul its AI research and development approach.
“Zhu argues that China must stop ‘chasing the basketball all over the court,’ meaning his country should stop following foreign paradigms, which he sees as a recipe for competitive failure, because technology fashions change,” the Georgetown report said. “That is, China should ‘not blindly follow the current AI hotspots characterized by “big data, large computing power and large models,”’ but rather should ‘find a new way to explore our own path of scientific research and innovation with strong strategic determination.’”
Making such changes and winning the AI race is critical, according to Mr. Zhu. He has said he views winning the AI race for such tech as equal in military importance to the race for the atomic bomb, according to House lawmakers.
To staff BIGAI, Mr. Zhu has tried to recruit more foreign-trained scientists, particularly from the U.S. The May 2023 Georgetown report said more than 30 such scientists had been recruited to BIGAI, with many of them coming from Mr. Zhu’s team at UCLA.
Other researchers at the California university have continued to co-author research papers with BIGAI scholars, according to Georgetown. BIGAI listed 25 job openings on its English-language website on Monday, with positions available for scientists of cognitive reasoning and robotics research.
UCLA did not respond to a request for comment on the investigation into Mr. Zhu.
Asked about the congressional investigation into Mr. Zhu, the National Science Foundation said it received the lawmakers’ letter. Rebecca Keiser, NSF chief of research security strategy and policy, said her agency is working to implement safeguards against talent recruitment programs for U.S. adversaries, as required by law.
“Through NSF’s research security analytics efforts, we are able to identify talent plan memberships that are not disclosed,” Ms. Keiser said in a statement. “NSF works closely with its Office of Inspector General to address these non-disclosures.”
The Department of Defense declined to answer questions and said it responds directly to members of Congress.