Google has requested a meeting with a top US general as political tension rises over the internet giant’s artificial intelligence work in China.
General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Thursday that Google "indirectly benefits the Chinese military" and is planning to meet with the company over the matter. The Pentagon official cited a Google AI lab that opened in Beijing in 2017 as a cause of concern.
"In my judgment, us assisting the Chinese military in advancing technology is not in U.S. national interests," Dunford said on Thursday at an Atlantic Council event. "So it’s a debate we have to have."
Dunford is "tentatively scheduled" to meet next week with a senior Google official in Washington, at Google’s request, Colonel Patrick Ryder, a military spokesman, wrote in an email.
Google’s relationship with the Pentagon has been strained since it retreated from an AI defence contract last year following employee protests. The tech giant has faced criticism in Washington for plans to launch a search engine in China, where Google pulled most of its commercial services in 2010. At a Senate hearing last week, Dunford said Google was indirectly helping China’s military. Days later, U.S. President Donald Trump repeated the critique in a tweet.
In response, Google issued a statement on Sunday denying the claim. "We are not working with the Chinese military," the Alphabet Inc. unit said. "We are working with the U.S. government, including the Department of Defense, in many areas including cybersecurity, recruiting and healthcare.”
On Thursday, a Google spokeswoman declined to comment on the tentative meeting with the general. The company’s Beijing lab is focused on developing software including TensorFlow, one of the most popular AI tools, along with education initiatives, "research on natural language understanding and market algorithms," the spokeswoman wrote in an email.
TensorFlow is a critical part of Google’s expansion strategy. TensorFlow has been downloaded 17 million times with more than 2 million of those coming from China-based users, Google engineering director Rajat Monga said at a September conference backed by the Chinese government. TensorFlow is free, open-source software, so Google doesn’t control who uses it.