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This article was published on July 28, 2020

TikTok owner ByteDance’s AI chief to leave as US pressure rises

AI has played a huge role in TikTok's popularity

TikTok owner ByteDance’s AI chief to leave as US pressure rises Image by: Solen Feyissa
Thomas Macaulay
Story by

Thomas Macaulay

Writer at Neural by TNW Writer at Neural by TNW

ByteDance’s head of AI research is leaving the Beijing-based firm amid mounting scrutiny of the company’s video app TikTok.

Since Ma Wei-Ling joined ByteDance after leaving Microsoft in 2017, the company has become the world’s most valuable startup — thanks largely to TikTok, the planet’s most downloaded app in Q1 2020.

The AI developed at Wei-Ling’s lab has played a big role in TikTok’s wild popularity. It provides creators with a range of user-friendly editing tools, and gives consumers an addictive feed of videos personalized to their tastes.

But the app’s success has also sparked a growing number of regulatory challenges. In June, the Indian government banned TikTok alongside 58 other Chinese apps, which it claimed were “stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users’ data in an unauthorized manner to servers which have locations outside India.”

The next month, President Trump said he was also considering banning the app, weeks after TikTok teens helped sink the Orange Man’s ill-conceived Tusla rally.

[Read: US joins G7 AI alliance to counter China’s influence]

In China, ByteDance produces a parallel version of TikTok, called Douyin. While both apps look very similar, offering separate products to domestic and foreign users has allowed Bytedance to pursue global expansion without upsetting Beijing’s censors.

But mollifying Beijing is increasingly aggravating Washington. TikTok is currently under a national-security review amid allegations the app is censoring content to satisfy Chinese government orders. ByteDance has denied the claims, but pressure on the firm is mounting. The departure of Wei-Ling — who is reportedly taking a position at China’s Tsinghua University — could be another blow to its ambitions.

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