Eric Schmidt Warned Against China’s AI Industry. Emails Show He Also Sought Connections to It

In November 2019, the US government’s National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI), an influential body chaired by former Google CEO and executive chairman Eric Schmidt, warned that China was using artificial intelligence to “advance an autocratic agenda.”

Just two months earlier, Schmidt was also seeking potential personal connections to China’s AI industry on a visit to Beijing, newly disclosed emails reveal. Separately, tax filings show that a nonprofit private foundation overseen by Schmidt and his wife contributed to a fund that feeds into a private equity firm that has made investments in numerous Chinese tech firms, including those in AI.

When the NSCAI issued its full findings in 2021, Schmidt and the NSCAI’s vice chairman said in a statement that “China’s plans, resources, and progress should concern all Americans,” and warned that “China’s domestic use of AI is a chilling precedent for anyone around the world who cherishes individual liberty.”

The 2019 email communications, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Tech Transparency Project (TTP), a nonprofit research initiative that tracks tech industry influence, show staff at Schmidt Futures, a philanthropic venture, asking NSCAI employees to help identify “possible engagements [Schmidt] might have on AI, in a personal capacity.” The names are redacted, but an NSCAI staff member replies, “Sure thing, happy to help out.” One person is tasked with coming up with “interesting companies in Beijing.”

It is unclear what meetings, if any, occurred in China as a result of the discussions, or whether such meetings might have translated into business dealings. However, the messages add detail to what appears to be a complicated relationship between Schmidt and America’s chief geopolitical rival. They also reflect the paradox of rivalry and interdependence that characterizes the dynamics between the world’s two most powerful nations.

Flight records previously obtained by TTP show that a Gulfstream flew from Google’s home hanger in November 2019. A day later, press reports suggest Schmidt, who was in China for the Bloomberg New Economy Forum, dined with Kai-Fu Lee, ex-head of Google China and a prominent Chinese entrepreneur and investor. The pair told a Bloomberg reporter at the time that they were “just catching up.”

Tax filings for 2019 show that the Eric and Wendy Schmidt Fund for Strategic Innovation, a nonprofit overseen by the billionaire and his wife, had invested almost $17 million in a fund that feeds into an investment firm then called Hillhouse Capital, which invests in a number of prominent Chinese tech and AI companies, among other businesses. In October 2016, Hillhouse reportedly launched an AI investment fund with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a state-run institution. In 2017, Hillhouse led a funding round of $55 million in the Chinese AI company Yitu, a startup that would soon be repeatedly blacklisted by the US government for allegedly supplying face recognition technology used for surveillance in China.

The final NSCAI report includes a section on promoting “International Digital Democracy” initiatives. It provides a handful of suggestions for how to “develop, promote, and fund” digital ecosystems, including partnerships with the private sector—citing Hillhouse as a positive example.

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