The former head of Google’s artificial intelligence project in China is one of a number of ethnically Chinese scientists to be elected this year to the United States’ prestigious National Academy of Medicine.
Fei-Fei Li, a Beijing-born computer science professor at Stanford University and a Twitter board director, was among 90 new regular members announced by the academy on Tuesday as “individuals who have demonstrated outstanding professional achievement and commitment to service”.
Membership is considered one of the highest honours in the fields of health and medicine, according to the academy, which includes top infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci among its ranks.
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Li was elected “for helping establish the field of vision-based artificial intelligence, engendering diverse high-yield medical applications, including her current innovative focus on health-critical clinician and patient behaviour recognition”.
She was a rising star at Google, where she worked as chief scientist for AI and machine learning (AI/ML) before leaving amid controversy surrounding the company’s contracts to develop AI tools for the Pentagon.
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Leaked emails discussing the initiative, called Project Maven, prompted outrage among Google employees, who said they suggested Li – a frequent public advocate for the ethical use of AI – was more worried about the company’s public image than the ethical concerns of the technology.
Before that, she oversaw basic AI research, all of Google Cloud’s AI/ML products and engineering efforts, and a new Google AI lab in China.
Also elected to the academy was Harvard University physics professor Zhuang Xiaowei, who received her undergraduate degree at the University of Science and Technology before her postgraduate studies at UC Berkeley and Stanford.
She was recognised for “pioneering super-resolution imaging and imaging-based single-cell genomics” which helped uncover novel structures in cells, novel spatial and functional organisation of cells in tissues, and examples of how mis-regulation may cause disorders.
The Chinese researchers caught in a US academic no-man’s land
The academy also announced 10 new international members, including Wang Chen, vice-president of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, the country’s leading state research institution.
Wang, who also heads the state-backed Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and Peking Union Medical College in Beijing, was selected for “his leadership of China’s three leading medical bodies and his impactful clinical research and medical reforms”.
Researchers in the US who are ethnically Chinese or from China have been increasingly caught in the crosshairs of deteriorating relations between Washington and Beijing, with the US government stepping up its crackdown on foreign influence in science and technology research.
In July this year, the US National Science Foundation revealed that most cases of alleged violations of American rules on foreign disclosures since 2018 had been related to China. US researchers with ties to China have also been investigated for potentially violating funding rules.
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