China eyeing Google's touchscreen tech for stealth fighters?

A Google scientist co-authored a paper for China's premier scientific institute

J-20 at Zhuhai (File) Two J-20 fighters with their weapon bays open at the Zhuhai Airshow | Reuters

A research paper by China's premier scientific institution that had a Google scientist as a co-author has fuelled concern that the technology giant's expertise could be used by Beijing's military.

The research paper by the Chinese Academy of Sciences focussed on development of a “smart target selection assistant” to boost input speed for touchscreen devices. The new technology could in theory help pilots and weapons operators select “fast-moving targets on a touchscreen with unprecedented speed and accuracy,” the South China Morning Post said. The paper added the technology's implications made China's J-20 stealth fighter a candidate to use it.

The South China Morning Post reported the technology would help “speed up on-screen mobile target selection by more than 50 per cent and improve accuracy by nearly 80 per cent.” One of the paper's authors was Shumin Zhai, a lead scientist working on Google's artificial intelligence efforts.

Shumin Zhai's bio on Google's Artificial Intelligence page describes him as “a human-computer interaction research scientist at Google where he leads and directs research, design and development of input methods and haptics systems on Google’s and its partner’s flagship products”. A glance at his research publication history shows extensive work on areas related to touchscreen technology.

The South China Morning Post claimed the Chinese Academy of Sciences had originally described the research paper as having “broad application prospects in military, medical, education and digital entertainment.” But following the publication of the newspaper's report, the academy purportedly removed references to military applications from the description.

In a statement to the South China Morning Post on Wednesday, Google confirmed its involvement in the Chinese research paper. However, it refuted claims the research had military implications. “There is nothing in this paper that refers to a military application. Research like this is key to improving finger or stylus-based navigation in any app,” Google said.

The J-20 fighter, which first flew in 2011, is believed to use a large touchscreen, keeping with a trend seen among modern combat aircraft over the past decade. The Dassault Rafale, which will enter Indian Air Force service in a few months, already uses touchscreens. Such devices enable pilots to collate a range of diverse information—such as the aircraft's operational parameters, weapons options and battlefield data—on a single screen, allowing for smooth decision-making.

The work by the Chinese Academy of Sciences to accelerate a touchscreen's response to moving targets started last year. According to the South China Morning Post, the team at the Chinese Academy of Sciences “developed an algorithm that can predict a finger’s landing point on screen when a human user pinpoints a moving target. Even if the touch is a little off-target, the machine can make a fairly accurate estimate of which target the user intended to select.”

This is not the first time Google has been accused of engaging in research that could benefit the Chinese military. In March, General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that “the work that Google is doing in China is indirectly benefiting the Chinese military”. US President Donald Trump himself criticised Google in a tweet in March.

Trump tweeted, “Google is helping China and their military, but not the U.S. Terrible!...” In 2018, Google withdrew from an artificial intelligence programme involving the US military to improve analysis of drone imagery.

Google opened an artificial intelligence lab in Beijing in 2017.