A common belief among tech industry insiders is that Silicon Valley has dominated the internet because much of the worldwide network was designed and built by Americans. Now a growing number of those insiders are worried that proposed export restrictions could short-circuit the pre-eminence of US companies in the next big thing to hit their industry: artificial intelligence. In November, the Commerce Department released a list of technologies, including artificial intelligence, that are under consideration for new export rules because of their importance to national security. Technology experts worry that blocking the export of AI to other countries, or tying it up in red tape, will help AI industries flourish in those nations -- China, in particular -- and compete with US companies. "The number of cases where exports can be sufficiently controlled are very, very, very small, and the chance of making an error is quite large," said Jack Clark, head of policy at OpenAI, an artificial intelligence lab in San Francisco.
The US and China are in a race to become the AI superpower of the century. The perceived stakes are high: not only would the victor reap massive economic benefits,but it could also establish a new military edge. As Russian president Vladimir Putin phrased it last year, "Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world." Not all experts agree--and most AI researchers don't see themselves in an arms race at all. But that hasn't stopped leaders in both countries from rapidly escalating their offensives.
The Treasury Department is crafting rules that would block firms with at least 25% Chinese ownership from buying companies involved in what the White House calls "industrially significant technology." The ceiling may end up lower than that, according to people familiar with discussions finalizing the plans. In addition, the National Security Council and the Commerce Department are putting together plans for "enhanced" export controls, designed to keep such technologies from being shipped to China, said the people familiar with the proposals. "We've got trillions of dollars seeking our crown jewels of technology," said White House trade adviser Peter Navarro last week. "There has to be a defense against that."
But "trying to draw a line between what is military and what is commercial is exceedingly difficult," said R. David Edelman, a technology policy researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is difficult to put a "made in America" label on artificial intelligence. Research on the technology is often done collaboratively by scientists and engineers all over the world. Companies rarely hold on to the details of their A.I. work, as if it were a secret recipe. Instead, they share what they learn, in hopes that other researchers can build on it.
Amazon, Apple, Google, IBM and their peers could be subject to new restrictions on how they export the technology behind voice-activated smartphones, self-driving cars and speedy supercomputers to China under a proposal floated Monday by the Trump administration. For the U.S. government, its pursuit of new regulations marks a heightened effort to ensure that emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence, don't fall into the hands of countries or actors that might pose a national security threat. The official request for public comment, published in the Federal Register, asks whether a long list of AI tools should be subject to stricter export-control rules. The Trump administration's potential targets include image-recognition software, ultrafast quantum computers, advanced computer chips, self-driving cars and robots. Companies that make those products and services might, for instance, have to obtain licenses before selling them to foreign governments or partnering with some researchers in certain countries.