iFlyTek, a Hefei-based startup, is helping advance China’s efforts in the artificial intelligence industry and also functioning as an ally to Beijing in state security, according to the New York Times.
Shenzhen-listed iFlyTek uses sophisticated AI to power image and voice recognition systems that can help doctors with their diagnoses, aid teachers in grading tests and let drivers control their cars with their voices.
The voice specialist also has close ties to the Chinese authorities, including hosting a laboratory to develop voice surveillance capabilities for the country’s domestic security forces, the report said.
The paper described iFlyTek as a “compelling example” of a Chinese firm with innovative technology as well as troubling ties to Chinese state security.
Vehicles, according to the company, could be the major market for its voice intelligence technology.
“We are always talking about big data – the vehicle produces many images every day,” Liu Junfeng, general manager of the company’s automotive business, was quoted as saying.
The company launched in September an in-car voice-activated command system that mounts on a dashboard and listens for questions that it can check online.
iFlyTek’s customers include Delphi, a major American auto supplier, which offers iFlyTek’s technology to carmakers in China, as well as the German automobile giant Volkswagen, which plans to build the Chinese firm’s speech recognition technology into some cars in China next year.
The voice intelligence startup is helping authorities compile a biometric voice database of Chinese citizens that could be used to track activists and others, the report said, citing a Human Rights Watch report.
Financial support from the authorities, and loosely enforced and untested privacy laws in the country, give Chinese companies considerable resources and access to voices, faces and other biometric data in vast quantities, which could help them develop their technologies, the paper cited experts as saying.
“China has entered the artificial intelligence age together with the US,” Liu Qingfeng, iFlyTek’s chairman, was quoted as saying at a tech conference in Beijing recently.
“But due to the advantage of a huge amount of users and China’s social governance, AI will develop faster and spread from China to the world.”
Portrayed as an ally of the government, iFlyTek helped prevent the loss of about US$75 million in telecoms fraud by helping the police target scammers last year, according to a Chinese media report.
Where iFlyTek gets its data is not clear. But one of the firm’s owners is China Mobile, the state telecom giant, which has more than 800 million subscribers, the Times noted.
iIFlyTek preloads its products on millions of China Mobile phones and runs the hotline service for China Mobile.
According to Human Rights Watch, iFlyTek has established a database of 70,000 voice patterns in its home province of Anhui, China.
Anhui authorities have launched a new plan to scan voice calls automatically for the voice-prints of wanted criminals, and alert the police if they are detected, Chinese media reported previously.
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