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Washington’s campaign against Chinese-linked academics is under pressure as another case collapses

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Washington's campaign against Chinese-linked academics is under pressure as another case collapses


Advocates say the China Initiative has become an excuse for racial profiling, part of a long US history of treating Asian-Americans as untrustworthy foreigners. In 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act barred Chinese immigrants from entering the country for 10 years, and during World War II the federal government detained hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese-Americans. Under the Clinton and Obama administrations there was a string of failed espionage cases against Chinese-American scientists, including Wen Ho Lee of Los Alamos National Laboratory, Temple University’s Xi Xiaoxing, and the National Weather Service’s Sherry Chen.

“The China Initiative is premised explicitly on the theory that there is an ethnic affinity … on the part of people of Chinese descent—even if they are United States citizens or Canadian citizens—to act in violation of American law for the benefit of Beijing,” says Frank Wu, the president of Queens College at the City University of New York. Under this system, he says, “ordinary behaviors such as scientific cooperation or visiting your mother [in China] suddenly become suspicious.” 

It has also had a chilling effect on Chinese-American scientists, says MIT’s Huang. During his regular meetings with the Asian American Scholar Forum, he says, others have expressed fear of being arrested, fear of losing their funding, and fear about the way they might be perceived by their non-Asian colleagues. Young PhD students are no longer looking for professorships in the US, he says, while established scientists are now searching for international options. A number returned to China to prestigious posts—an outcome the China Initiative had hoped to avoid—after their careers in the United States were destroyed.

“It’s pretty bad and pretty pervasive. We’re seeing this climate of fear engulfing Chinese-American scientists,” Huang says. “The US is losing the most talented people to other countries because of the China Initiative. That’s bad for science. That’s bad for America.”

The Hu case played out

To activists and civil society researchers who’ve been following the China Initiative, Hu’s case is anything but surprising.

Hu, a Chinese-born Canadian citizen, is a celebrated researcher in nanotechnology. In 2013, the University of Tennessee recruited him to teach and continue his research. Hu disclosed on multiple occasions that he’d worked part time teaching graduate students and researchers at the Beijing University of Technology, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel.

“The China Initiative is premised explicitly on the theory that there is an ethnic affinity on the part of people of Chinese descent to act in violation of American law for the benefit of Beijing.”

Frank Wu, City University of New York

None of this raised any issues at the time. When Hu began collaborating with NASA, which is legally barred from funding any research that involves “participation, collaboration, or coordination” with “China or a Chinese-owned corporation,” UT administrators assured both him and the government agency that this part-time work didn’t violate the restriction. The law is meant to apply to NASA, not to its research collaborators.

In 2018, however, the FBI identified Hu as a potential spy. During his court testimonial, Agent Sadiku said he had found and made a “rough translation” via Google of a Chinese-language news release and flier that suggested Hu had once received a short-term contract from the Thousand Talents Program. That was evidence enough for Sadiku to open up a formal probe.

During Sadiku’s first visit to Hu’s office, Hu says, the agent tried to get him to admit to involvement in a talent program. 

“They said, ‘You are so smart. You should be in the Thousand Talents Program,’” he recounted during his trial. “I say, ‘I’m not that smart.’” 

Sadiku also tried to persuade him to become a spy for the US government, using his Beijing University work as a cover. Hu declined via email after Sadiku’s visit. After this, Sadiku doubled down on his investigation, placing Hu and his son—then a freshman at UT—under surveillance.

But after nearly two years, Sadiku turned away from the espionage claims and instead started building the fraud case that Hu ended up being charged with. The evidence rested on a form that the university requires academics to fill out, disclosing any outside work that earns them more than $10,000. Hu did not disclose his part-time job because it earned him less than $2,000. Sadiku says this is evidence that Hu intentionally hid his China-affiliated work to defraud NASA. The jury, however, could not decide, and the deadlock triggered a mistrial.

FBI under pressure

Observers say the details of the case echo those of others brought as part of the China Initiative: a spy probe on an ethnically Chinese researcher is opened with little evidence, and the charges are later changed when no sign of economic espionage can be found.

According to German, the former FBI agent, this is due to the pressure “on FBI agents across the country, every FBI field office, [and] every US Attorney’s office to develop cases to fit the framing, because they have to prove statistical accomplishments.” 

“The DOJ doesn’t need a special initiative targeting China to go after spies. They should be able to use their normal methods and procedures.”

Alex Nowrasteh, Cato Institute

On Thursday, June 17, shortly after news of the mistrial, members of the House Judiciary Committee wrote to the inspector general of the Department of Justice requesting that the DOJ investigate whether there was adequate evidence unrelated to race or ethnicity for the FBI to open the case, whether the bureau had used false information and made false statements, and whether the China Initiative resulted in “untoward pressure” to engage in ethnic and racial profiling.

This follows increasing demands to investigate whether the initiative has led to such profiling—and calls to end that program altogether. 

“The DOJ doesn’t need a special initiative targeting China to go after spies,” says Alex Nowrasteh, the director of immigration studies and the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute. “They should be able to use their normal methods and procedures.”

Hu’s trial suggests “that the scope of Chinese espionage is probably a lot less than people think,” he adds. “If there was a lot more of it, you’d think it’d be a little bit easier to find, and they wouldn’t have to make up cases.”

As for Hu, his nightmare is far from over.

He is still under house arrest, pending a decision from either the Department of Justice to renew the case or drop it, or the judge to dismiss the government’s charges entirely. He has been jobless since his US work visa expired, but he has also not been granted leave from house arrest so he can return to Canada to renew it. Doing so could put him in the crosshairs of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to his lawyer.

All he can do is wait for the US government to make its next move. 



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A bot that watched 70,000 hours of Minecraft could unlock AI’s next big thing

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A bot that watched 70,000 hours of Minecraft could unlock AI’s next big thing


The researchers claim that their approach could be used to train AI to carry out other tasks. To begin with, it could be used to for bots that use a keyboard and mouse to navigate websites, book flights or buy groceries online. But in theory it could be used to train robots to carry out physical, real-world tasks by copying first-person video of people doing those things. “It’s plausible,” says Stone.

Matthew Gudzial at the University of Alberta, Canada, who has used videos to teach AI the rules of games like Super Mario Bros, does not think it will happen any time soon, however. Actions in games like Minecraft and Super Mario Bros. are performed by pressing buttons. Actions in the physical world are far more complicated and harder for a machine to learn. “It unlocks a whole mess of new research problems,” says Gudzial.

“This work is another testament to the power of scaling up models and training on massive datasets to get good performance,” says Natasha Jaques, who works on multi-agent reinforcement learning at Google and the University of California, Berkeley. 

Large internet-sized data sets will certainly unlock new capabilities for AI, says Jaques. “We’ve seen that over and over again, and it’s a great approach.” But OpenAI places a lot of faith in the power of large data sets alone, she says: “Personally, I’m a little more skeptical that data can solve any problem.”

Still, Baker and his colleagues think that collecting more than a million hours of Minecraft videos will make their AI even better. It’s probably the best Minecraft-playing bot yet, says Baker: “But with more data and bigger models I would expect it to feel like you’re watching a human playing the game, as opposed to a baby AI trying to mimic a human.”

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The Download: AI conquers Minecraft, and babies after death

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The Download: AI conquers Minecraft, and babies after death


+ Scientists have found a way to mature eggs from transgender men in the lab. It could offer them new ways to start a family—without the need for distressing IVF procedures. Read the full story.  + How reproductive technology is changing what it means to be a parent. Advances could lead to babies with four or more biological parents—forcing us to reconsider parenthood. Read the full story.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 Elon Musk wants to reinstate banned Twitter accounts
It’s an incredibly dangerous decision with widespread repercussions. (WP $) 
+ Recent departures have hit Twitter’s policy and safety divisions hard. (WSJ $)
+ It looks like Musk’s promise of no further layoffs was premature. (Insider $)
+ Meanwhile, Twitter Blue is still reportedly launching next week. (Reuters)
+ Imagine simply transferring your followers to another platform. (FT $)
+ Twitter’s potential collapse could wipe out vast records of recent human history. (MIT Technology Review)

2 Russia’s energy withdrawal could kill tens of thousands in Europe 
High fuel costs could result in more deaths this winter than the war in Ukraine. (Economist $)
+ Higher gas prices will also hit Americans as the weather worsens. (Vox)
+ Ukraine’s invasion underscores Europe’s deep reliance on Russian fossil fuels. (MIT Technology Review)

3 FTX is unable to honor the grants it promised various organizations 
Many of them are having to seek emergency funding to plug the gaps. (WSJ $)
+ Bahamians aren’t thrilled about what its collapse could mean for them. (WP $)

4 It’s a quieter Black Friday than usual
Shopping isn’t much of a priority right now. (Bloomberg $)
+ If you do decide to shop, make sure you don’t get scammed. (Wired $)

5 The UK is curbing its use of Chinese surveillance systems 
But only on “sensitive” government sites. (FT $)
+ The world’s biggest surveillance company you’ve never heard of. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Long covid is still incredibly hard to treat 
Its symptoms vary wildy, which can make it hard to track, too. (Undark)
+ A universal flu vaccine is looking promising. (New Scientist $)

7 San Francisco’s police is considering letting robots use deadly force
The force has 12 remotely piloted robots that could, in theory, kill someone. (The Verge)

8 Human hibernation could be the key to getting us to Mars 
It could be the closest we can get to time travel. (Wired $)

9 Why TikTok is suddenly so obsessed with dabloons 
It’s a form of choose-your-own-adventure fun. (The Guardian)

10 We can’t stop trying to reinvent mousetraps 🧀
There are thousands of versions out there, yet we keep coming up with new designs. (New Yorker $)

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We can now use cells from dead people to create new life. But who gets to decide?

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We can now use cells from dead people to create new life. But who gets to decide?


His parents told a court that they wanted to keep the possibility of using the sperm to eventually have children that would be genetically related to Peter. The court approved their wishes, and Peter’s sperm was retrieved from his body and stored in a local sperm bank. 

We have the technology to use sperm, and potentially eggs, from dead people to make embryos, and eventually babies. And there are millions of eggs and embryos—and even more sperm—in storage and ready to be used. When the person who provided those cells dies, like Peter, who gets to decide what to do with them?

That was the question raised at an online event held by the Progress Educational Trust, a UK charity for people with infertility and genetic conditions, that I attended on Wednesday. The panel included a clinician and two lawyers, who addressed plenty of tricky questions, but provided few concrete answers. 

In theory, the decision should be made by the person who provided the eggs, sperm or embryos. In some cases, the person’s wishes might be quite clear. Someone who might be trying for a baby with their partner may store their sex cells or embryos and sign a form stating that they are happy for their partner to use these cells if they die, for example. 

But in other cases, it’s less clear. Partners and family members who want to use the cells might have to collect evidence to convince a court the deceased person really did want to have children. And not only that, but that they wanted to continue their family line without necessarily becoming a parent themselves.

Sex cells and embryos aren’t property—they don’t fall under property law and can’t be inherited by family members. But there is some degree of legal ownership for the people who provided the cells. It is complicated to define that ownership, however, Robert Gilmour, a family law specialist based in Scotland, said at the event. “The law in this area makes my head hurt,” he said.

The law varies depending on where you are, too. Posthumous reproduction is not allowed in some countries, and is unregulated in many others. In the US, laws vary by state. Some states won’t legally recognize a child conceived after a person’s death as that person’s offspring, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM). “We do not have any national rules or policies,” Gwendolyn Quinn, a bioethicist at New York University, tells me.

Societies like ASRM have put together guidance for clinics in the meantime. But this can also vary slightly between regions. Guidance by the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology, for example, recommends that parents and other relatives should not be able to request the sex cells or embryos of the person who died. That would apply to Peter Zhu’s parents. The concern is that these relatives might be hoping for a “commemorative child” or as “a symbolic replacement of the deceased.”

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