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Donald Trump Wants to Choke Chinese Tech Growth. An Import Ban Could Do the Opposite.

Attempts to control how artificial intelligence develops and is used could backfire.

Artificial IntelligenceJakub Jirsák / Dreamstime.comIt is no secret that the Trump administration wants to curb China's growing global dominance. Imposing tariffs on Chinese imports has been a key element of Trump's economic agenda. But another important piece of the counter-China plan has gone less noticed: export controls on emerging technologies to Chinese markets.

Technology progresses when researchers and entrepreneurs are able to coordinate and learn from each other's work. But tensions can arise when governments believe that open inquiry will undermine national security. Few people want ISIS to get ahold of their own drones, for instance.

Governments therefore promulgate "export administration regulations" (EAR) to try and control what and how sensitive technological information can be shared. A multilateral treaty called the Wassenaar Arrangement harmonizes such efforts to prevent things like nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of hostile actors.

This is not to say that governments can't have ulterior motives in drafting EAR lists. In this case, certain "dual-use technologies" that have both peaceful and military applications are being targeted for export controls to curtail a geopolitical rival. Ironically, this strategy could ultimately redound to other countries' benefit.

Last August, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 was signed into law. It contained the Export Control Reform Act of 2018 (ECRA), which granted the Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) of the Commerce Department permanent authority to set export controls. (Previously, the BIS only had temporary authority through executive orders.) The ECRA directed BIS to issue a list of technologies that should fall under new export controls as well as "foreign persons and end-uses that are determined to be a threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States."

BIS released their proposed list of technologies in a public notice of rulemaking last November. They are: biotechnology, artificial intelligence (A.I.), position navigation and timing (PNT) technology, microprocessors, advanced computing, data analytics, quantum information and sensing, logistics, 3D printing, robotics, brain-computer interfaces, advanced materials (e.g. functional textiles), and surveillance. The list may change by the time the final rules are issued, but the early draft provides a snapshot of what's at stake.

The BIS notice does not include a list of targeted countries. But we can expect that nations with strained US relations, like Iran and Russia, will get the axe.

China will undoubtedly be on the new technological export control list. Not only is the nation thought to have been involved in high-profile espionage campaigns against U.S. corporations and leadership, it is engaged in an industrial policy aimed at toppling American technology dominance, called Made in China 2025.

China's role in the future of A.I. is of particular concern. The People's Republic of China has poured billions of dollars into A.I. research. Such a king's ransom could lead to promising developments in the field at large, perhaps flavored by the particular political goals or cultural biases of the funders and builders.

This makes many in the West nervous. Our scientists and commentators are currently engaged in a difficult discussion about how to protect their most dear values. In particular, they are worried about A.I.'s capacity to further social bias or introduce uncontrollable weapons systems. They sometimes promote precautionary bans or limitations on A.I. technology to prevent such ills, although this approach could rob society of many benefits if too expansive. Adam Thierer, Raymond Russell, and I promote an alternative, called "permissionless innovation," which would allow us to keep "doomsday" scenarios like hostile A.I. in check while allowing the greatest possible space for development. (To the Trump administration's credit, they have shown willingness to embrace this approach so far.)

It is easy to sympathize with these concerns when it comes to the Chinese government. They have a less-than-stellar track record when it comes to Enlightenment values and technology, to put it mildly. Consider the "social credit" system, which is a massive surveillance campaign to track and punish disloyalty to the state. Perhaps more pointedly, the PRC has made great use of technology, including machine learning, to target its minority Uighur Muslim population for "re-education."

Then there's the mercantilist motivation. The fact that export controls would supplement the Commerce Department's ongoing trade war with China is surely no coincidence.

It appears that the Trump administration believes that export controls are a good path to control the threat of PRC A.I. domination. By limiting the ways in which U.S.-based scientists, and therefore foreign scientists collaborating with U.S. groups, can interact with their Chinese counterparts working on A.I., the Commerce Department hopes to clip China's wings. There is good reason to believe this won't work.

First of all, there is the problem with enforcement. Scientists chafe at any censorship of their work they view as unjust. They will subvert the efforts. The rather embarrassing debacle with the "Crypto Wars" is a classic example.

And not all technology hubs will follow suit. As a feature in the New York Times pointed out, the relevant factors of production are mobile. These export controls would limit beneficial scientific dialogue in addition to any shadier ventures. Companies and researchers frustrated by this virtual wall may just choose to move to a more hospitable locale, perhaps in Europe or Asia.

Thierer and Jennifer Huddleston Skees note that export controls on AI technology to China is just another classic example of what they call "global innovation arbitrage." Countries seeking to crack down on a technology rarely actually control production as they hope. Rather, capital and labor merely moves to a more permissive environment where it can continue less impeded.

Meanwhile, the goals the country hoped to advance—whether done in the name of "equality," or "hate speech," or "counter-terrorism," or whatever—are basically ignored everywhere else. Had domestic policymakers tried to work with technologists, rather than against them, they may have arrived at a policy environment that better addressed their concerns.

Could this be the case with export controls on A.I. technologies to China and other places? Perhaps Western values could be better promulgated through coordination. There are likely scientists in China that share our concerns. They may be better able to address them from within with the help of foreign scientists. And it may be easier to keep tabs on what the PRC is up to through regular communication.

What is clear is that U.S. export controls on emerging technologies will almost certainly fail to contain tech in the way our leaders want. Rather than freezing out China, export controls may ironically freeze us out as capital and labor move to less restrictive climates. This is far from a strong stance against potential Chinese malfeasance in technological development. It is a retreat.

Photo Credit: Jakub Jirsák / Dreamstime.com

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Skynet was a globalist, you know.

  • Ordinary Person||

    "capital and labor move"

    Comrades, capitalists of the world unite!

  • a ab abc abcd abcde abcdef ahf||

    China couldn't keep silkworms from traveling. The US couldn't keep atom bomb secrets from traveling.

    Here they go again.

  • vek||

    So here's the thing, stuff like this is dicey. It is NOT pure libertarian... But pure libertarianism is insanely autistic when it comes to, well, lots of things. The fact is every person and every nation are not simply nice, polite, actors looking to maximize their economic advantage. Some people/nations have bad intent.

    The question is, in the real world, how to deal with this. Should we send over the full schematics for our latest, greatest attack drones to ISIS or Iran? Obviously not. Should we send it to Russia or China? I'm still gonna go with NO.

    Now anybody with a brain knows that no prohibition is 100% effective... But what autistic libertarians often miss is that a program doesn't need to be 100% effective for it to be worth it.

    Does anybody REALLY think if we had blockaded 100% of trade and technology transfers with China, until they met certain human rights goals, opened up their political system, opened trade into China etc that they would be ANYWHERE near as successful as they have been? OBVIOUSLY NOT. They'd probably be 20 years, or more, behind where they are if the western world and Japan hadn't handed everything to them on a silver platter. They'd be dirt farmers still.

  • vek||

    Full embargo is a bit over the top... But for a sub section of sensitive stuff... What if it merely forces them to spend an extra few hundred billion bucks, and keeps them running a decade behind where they would have been? We WILL feel some economic pain over this... The question is, is it worth it?

    Hard question to answer, and I think the devil lies in the details. But autistic libertarian thinking that 100% ignores anything that doesn't show up on a corporate balance sheet is simply not a full and proper picture of the real world.

    China is militant, aggressive, increasingly militaristic, and has stated goals of global hegemony... Given that they're a ruthless totalitarian dictatorship, and not a nice, soft, fuzzy democracy, this SHOULD worry any sane person. If China is the most powerful country in the world, and is calling the international shots... Do you REALLY think that is going to be a better world? It is almost certainly inevitable anyway, but I don't think we should be going out of our way to help them. It's a hell of a lot like giving Nazi Germany preferential treatment in the 1930s, it's just a dumb fucking move. If anything we should probably be treating them more like the USSR during the cold war. We had relations with them, even did some joint stuff, some trade... But we weren't bending over backwards for them.

  • Last of the Shitlords||

    Weakening China and destabilizing their government's control over the population is a good thing. They are the greatest enemy of all, except maybe for progressive democrats.

  • vek||

    Pert near. The thing that infuriates me SO MUCH is that if the western world weren't being undermined so much by our own leftist political elites, we could be humming along doing AWESOME. Instead we have a whole series of dumpster fires created by authoritarian assholes, and their idiot rank and file progressive zombie followers.

    If you think about it, almost EVERY SINGLE point of contention or problem we have in the western world is because of progressive globalists, and the havoc they have brought into the US/Europe. I can only hope and pray that we get back on track... Because if we don't, and China ends up being the sole global super power because we've driven ourselves into the ground... Well that's gonna be a fucked up world.

  • Sevo||

    "...But pure libertarianism is insanely autistic when it comes to, well, lots of things. The fact is every person and every nation are not simply nice, polite, actors looking to maximize their economic advantage. Some people/nations have bad intent.
    [...]
    But autistic libertarian thinking that 100% ignores anything that doesn't show up on a corporate balance sheet is simply not a full and proper picture of the real world."

    You need to see someone about those voices in your head and fuck off, slaver.

  • Last of the Shitlords||

    You don't think China has nefarious plans for global control?

  • vek||

    Look dude, we agree on 95% of shit. The problem is you're autistic on some things, just like many other libertarians. I actually used to be one of you! No joke. I was 100% dogmatic.

    Then got older, studied history more. Learned a lot more about human psychology and biology... I came to a realization that autistic levels of libertarianism are simply not able to be implemented in the real world for various reasons.

    They're TECHNICALLY correct in their logic and morals... But they just won't work. Some things require that 100% of people are on board with playing "by the rules" that are required for pure libertarianism to function... But with actual human beings, that is an impossibility. Therefore, it is impossible to implement pure AnCap world IRL.

    On some fronts, it's because all people are NOT interchangeable widgets. Some people ARE smarter/faster/more talented than others. This is why men/women can never actually be equal, and why men will always dominate almost all areas of importance. Culture and beliefs matter, as does intelligence, hence we cannot have open borders with no qualifications. We can be non interventionist 99% of the time, but not completely pacifist. I could go on for ages about particular issues that just don't work.

  • vek||

    NOW, that does not mean we couldn't be 10,000,000 times MORE libertarian than we are now. We could have a FedGoc 1/10th the size of our current one, and probably funded almost entirely with fee for service type taxes, or avoidable taxes. We could eliminate close to 100% of victimless crimes. We could stop invading piss ant countries for no good reason. So on and so forth.

    But some things are just not doable in the real world. Not taking into account the foreign policy goals of militant and aggressive foreign nations just ain't a good idea. There are some things that are more important than an extra .07% of annual GDP growth.

    If I'm a slaver, you should BE SO LUCKY as to have a brilliant slaver like me. The world has been ruled by people 1 million times worse than me throughout almost all of human history. I'm 98% libertarian, with about 2% of sensible exceptions to the general rules which are well worth it for the superior results they get.

    Anyway, if the progressive lunatics win the proverbial war we have going on right now thanks to endless immigrant votes, or the Chinese are fucking us in the ass in a couple decades... Just remember that sane people like me warned you about it all! If you want to write me an apology letter, I'll probably be chillin' in my compound in Idaho by then.

  • Sevo||

    "It is no secret that the Trump administration wants to curb China's growing global dominance."

    Need to dial back the hyperbole a bit. What "dominance"?

  • Last of the Shitlords||

    China is attempting to increase their economic, military and political influence globally. With the long term goal of China being the sole global superpower.

  • vek||

    Do you not know how to read charts Sevo?

    Look up charts forecasting GDP forward a few decades.

    Look up charts showing engineering graduates.

    So on and so forth. Xi has also decided that limiting Chinese population growth was a bad idea too! So their population MAY return back to a growth trajectory. People have actually written on the fact that China is officially encouraging Chinese people to move abroad, knowing that for a minimum of a couple generations immigrants tend to feel a strong affinity towards their homeland, and be deferential and push things that are good for it, even against the interests of their new nation. By some peoples reckoning this is a soft way of gaining Chinese influence abroad, for when they're making their real power plays in a couple decades.

    No matter what happens, China will be the most powerful country on earth in a few decades. The big question is just HOW MUCH more powerful they will be than the USA/EU. If we continue down the road of self destruction, as many major macro level policies are doing to us... And they stay on point... They may be orders of magnitude more powerful/wealthy than us in just a few decades.

  • buybuydandavis||

    " Xi has also decided that limiting Chinese population growth was a bad idea too! "

    I hadn't heard that. Makes sense, though. More people, more power.

    China already has the biggest economy by PPP. Surprisingly, to me at least, India is already half the US.

    The history of the Earth will be the history of Asia. Europeans were a half millenia blip.

  • vek||

    Yup. Not widely reported in the media. A couple years ago they eased up on the 1 child policy. Then just a few months back IIRC they lifted basically all limits. They have already "trained" people to not have a ton of kids, so how much effect it will have is debatable, but it will surely increase births to some degree.

    Yeah, it is kinda crazy. PPP is a meaningful number... But it's not the whole picture either. It was always true that Asia was going to rise up to be comparable/more powerful than the Eurosphere, barring us sabotaging them hardcore. But what was NOT true was that Europeans would be all but wiped off the face of the earth, lose their own homelands, and become total bitches.

    If we hadn't been intentionally sabotaged by our own elites Europe/America would still be INCREDIBLY powerful geopolitically. It is only the intentional screwing of our economies, and the creation of internal strife via mass immigration, that has weakened us to this point. America without these issues would be a far stronger nation, if not quite as populous.

    There is still time to turn it around, and I hope we do. I don't like the ChiComs, but I don't mind splitting power between Europe/Asia generally speaking. I DO NOT like the idea of us being as easy to push around as Africa is today though, which is where we seem to be heading.

  • newshutz||

    This is not new, software export controls to China have been in place, since FedGov has allowed trade with China.

    Just TDS to blame Trump for this.

  • Uncle Jay||

    Controlling AI is a wonderful idea.
    For that matter, controlling the unenlightened masses is a good idea too.
    Cuba does it, and just look what a wonderful place that is.

  • AD-RtR/OS!||

    So, since we have no effective method to contain tech loss (in your opinion) we shouldn't take any measure to attempt to do so.
    What a bunch of Nihilists.

  • vek||

    As I said above, this works off of the fallacy that any policy that is not 100% effective should not be implemented. Which is nonsense.

    We can't catch 100% of murderers, therefore we should have no laws against murder! That's basically that line of thinking. Depending on the situation, sometimes only having very small effects from a given course of action can still be worthwhile.

  • Unable2Reason||

    China is a freaking dictatorial hell-hole. This is a country that has been cutting the living internal organs out of Falun Gong members and selling them for transplant to rich westerners. This is the country that stole the plans to the F-22 Raptor from a supposedly air-gapped computer network. This is the country that laced dog, fish, & livestock feed with poisonous melamine to spoof the protein tests and destroyed countless animals. This is the country that adulterated toothpaste with anti-freeze ingredients that went to South America and poisoned a bunch of people to death (some of it ended up in the US too). China is our enemy, not a competitor.

    I don't know anything about the gibberish in this article but we need to do whatever will destroy China's economy while maintaining plausible deniability about what we are doing. China is selling us the rope to hang ourselves and all we keep hearing is 'free trade!'

    No country on earth should be that big. They are grinding up the native peoples into dust to make 'one China'. Mao was the biggest mass murder in history but how many have died since? I rue the day Nixon ever made his great 'China opening'.

  • vek||

    Beginning with Nixon, and ending with Clinton, we probably made the greatest geo-political mistake of the last century or two by kissing Chinese ass.

    If we REALLY needed a billion slave laborers for economic reasons THAT BAD... Why the hell didn't we give India preferential treatment as we have done with China? They have their problems, but they're fundamentally a pro Western democracy. It was sheer madness. And now to fix the problem, we'd have to cause untold problems to detangle ourselves from dealing with the Chinese.

  • buybuydandavis||

    "Cheap plastic geegaws in our time!"

    Trouble is, our ruling class has a chubby for the Chinese Way. A rich culture of the apparatchik state. It's what they aspire to.

  • buybuydandavis||

    I'm sure that Chinese Intelligence is talking to their AI scientists in and out of China, and they're much more persuasive than we are.

    Of course Reason's stand is that unlimited power for Emperor Xi is peachy keen, nothing to worry about, so keep giving him everything he wants.

    Corporate profits uber alles!

  • dchang0||

    Guess I better start learning Chinese. Might have to move there someday. I'll be an "economic migrant" (legal, though, not illegal).

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