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Thursday, Dec 03, 2020

In Japan, University of Tokyo fires AI professor over ‘will not hire Chinese’ tweet

Artificial intelligence researcher Shohei Ohsawa also said ‘lower-class citizens who do not understand Japanese’ were speaking out against him. His dismissal has sparked heated debate on Twitter, where users are alleging the university’s campus is ‘full of Chinese spies’

The University of Tokyo has sacked an associate professor over a series of anti-Chinese comments he posted on Twitter last year, triggering a heated debate online.

Shohei Ohsawa, an artificial intelligence (AI) researcher, “grossly damaged the honour and reputation” of the state-run university, it said in a Wednesday statement.

The 32-year-old, who runs blockchain and AI development company Daisy Co, tweeted between November and December that his firm “will not hire Chinese”.

“I will not bother to hold an interview if [I learn the applicant is] Chinese. I will eliminate the applicant in document screening,” he wrote, adding: “Workers with low performance levels deserve to be discriminated against in the context of capitalism.”

Ohsawa had also tweeted that “lower-class citizens who do not understand Japanese” were speaking out against him.

The University of Tokyo cited other reasons for the disciplinary action, including Ohsawa’s allegation that the Information, Technology, and Society in Asia course run by the institution was under the control of anti-Japanese forces. It also removed Ohsawa’s profile from its faculty member information page.

In response, Ohsawa said his dismissal was “unfair” and that the university was “wrong in making light of Japan’s AI technology development while valuing the diversity of various Asian countries”.

He later apparently deleted the offensive posts and apologised for his comments, explaining that Daisy’s employment policy was “a result of ‘overlearning’ by AI which excessively adapted itself to limited data”.

Ohsawa’s tweets sparked fiery exchanges on the microblogging platform, with users rallying behind the fired academic and launching a barrage of anti-China messages.

Some suggested the institution was forced to act as it had received funds from Chinese tech giant Huawei for research, and that Tokyo should follow the United States, which has warned that Beijing is looking to gain access to sensitive research.

“The University of Tokyo’s research may be used to crack down on the people … The campus is full of Chinese spies,” one user wrote. “[Are] the University of Tokyo and Huawei still connected? The unfair dismissal of an associate professor can be understood.”

Read another post: “The University of Tokyo is really abnormal. If you seek uniformity with strong authority over knowledge, it will only decline. At any rate, university officials affirm ‘communist anti-Japanese powers’ as an entity. That’s ridiculous.”

Japanese journalist and author Reiji Ishiwata said Ohsawa’s messages were unacceptable, but felt the university should enhance its ties with foreign scholars.

“No matter how much academic freedom there is, racist statements and attitudes are unacceptable. The University of Tokyo is an institution that should further promote exchanges with foreign researchers, including Chinese,” Ishiwata said.

After Ohsawa’s dismissal, a Twitter user said Tokyo was no match for Beijing’s AI capabilities and the outflow of Japanese scientists to China would not stop. Ohsawa snapped back, saying the situation was due to the countries’ relative sizes.

“In terms of the number of AI-related papers, China is far ahead of Japan … The outflow of Japanese scientists to China will not stop,” he wrote. “I have a lot of research funding. AI and machine learning are things that Japan is lagging behind, [but] it’s simply because of the population.”

Amid Japan’s chronic manpower shortage, a record 25,942 foreign students changed their visa status in 2018 to work in the East Asian nation after graduating from universities or vocational schools.

Students from China topped the list of those switching to work visas, accounting for 42 per cent of the total, followed by Vietnam at 20.2 per cent and Nepal at 11.3 per cent.

Last April, Ohsawa became a specially appointed associate professor at the Interfaculty Initiative in Information Studies (IIIS), a research organisation within the University of Tokyo’s graduate school.

To prevent a repeat of the incident, the IIIS will implement new measures such as deepening dialogue between the faculty and students as well as setting up a code of ethics, said its head Noboru Koshizuka in a statement.

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