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.
The document is only an initial notice of rules to come, and the Commerce Department, which is leading the effort, is still deciding how to proceed. But its broad wording, along with the White House’s long-running, high-stakes trade rift with Beijing, left some tech experts fearful that it could result in greater market barriers for companies doing business in China. They also worry that any rule could adversely affect U.S. investment and research in AI.
“If you think about the range of products this potentially implicates, that’s massive. This is either the opening of a big negotiation with the industry and the public or a bit of a cry for help in scoping these regulations,” said R. David Edelman, the director of the Project on Technology, the Economy, & National Security at MIT.
“We’ve seen the China trade war is a political football,” said Edelman, a former top tech aide to President Barack Obama, adding: “Surprises are not off the table here.”
The Commerce Department explicitly said it hopes to protect national security without “hampering the ability of the U.S. commercial sector to keep pace with international advances.” The rules come at the request of Congress, which authorized them as part of a recently passed defense bill. On Thursday, the agency said it is “committed to laying the proper foundation to ensure that those technologies critical to national security remain protected to ensure the safety of our country.”
Spokesmen for Apple, Google and IBM also did not respond to requests, and Amazon declined to comment. (Amazon.com founder Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
In its proposal, the Trump administration said it is focused “at a minimum” on countries already subject to a U.S. arms embargo, a category that includes China. The potential limits on AI research and exports reflect a growing apprehension with Beijing’s investment in that industry. In December 2017, for example, the White House’s official National Security Strategy warned that “risks to U.S. national security will grow as competitors integrate information derived from personal and commercial sources with intelligence collection and data analytic capabilities based on artificial intelligence and machine learning.”
What the Trump administration is “trying to control is the flow of know-how or research or development that enables" high-tech capabilities, said Melissa L. Duffy, an export-control expert and partner at the law firm Dechert.
Some in the tech industry worry the regulations could widen an existing trade rift between Washington and Beijing. Many executives at big tech companies have bristled at White House-backed tariffs on China, fearing that Beijing’s retaliation could result in higher costs for them — or higher prices on components for their products. Others simply don’t want to anger Beijing, which controls one of the world’s largest markets for tech devices.
To that end, Silicon Valley’s lobbyists have been scrambling to digest what the new proposal would mean for their industry at a time when U.S. firms are racing their Chinese counterparts to dominate the market for AI.
“We view this as a really important process that our industry is taking very seriously and plan to engage in, because the outcomes are of great consequence for us,” said Christian Troncoso, a policy director at BSA, a Washington-based trade group for companies including Apple, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle.