USA Wants to Restrict AI Exports: A Stupid and Dangerous Idea

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When small, closed minds tackle big issues, the results are rarely good, and frequently are awful. This tends to be especially true when governments attempt to restrict the development and evolution of technology. Not only do those attempts routinely fail at their stated and ostensible purposes, but they often do massive self-inflicted damage along the way, and end up further empowering our adversaries.

Much as Trump’s expensive fantasy wall (“Mexico will pay for it!”) would have little ultimate impact on genuine immigration problems — other than to further exacerbate them — his Commerce department’s new plans for restricting the export of technologies such as AI, speech recognition, natural language understanding, and computer vision would be yet another unforced error that could decimate the USA’s leading role in these areas.

We’ve been down this kind of road before. Years ago, the USA federal government placed draconian restrictions on the export of encryption technologies,  classifying them as a form of munitions. The result was that the rest of the world zoomed ahead in crypto tech. This also triggered famously bizarre situations like t-shirts with encryption source code printed on them being restricted, and the co-inventor of the UNIX operating system — Ken Thompson — battling to take his “Belle” chess-playing computer outside the country, because the U.S. government felt that various of the chips inside fell into this restricted category. (At the time, Ken was reportedly quoted as saying that the only way you could hurt someone with Belle was by dropping it out of a plane — you might kill someone if it hit them!)

As is the case with AI and the other technologies that Commerce is talking about restricting today, encryption R&D information is widely shared among researchers, and likewise, any attempts to stop these new technologies from being widely available, even attempts at restricting access to them by specific countries on our designated blacklist of the moment, will inevitably fail.

Even worse, the reaction of the global community to such ill-advised actions by the U.S. will inevitably tend to put us at a disadvantage yet again, as other countries with more intelligent and insightful leadership race ahead leaving us behind in the dust of politically motivated export control regimes.

To restrict the export of AI and affiliated technologies is shortsighted, dangerous, and will only accomplish damaging our own interests, by restricting our ability to participate fully and openly in these crucial areas. It’s the kind of self-destructive thinking that we’ve come to expect from the anti-science, “build walls” Trump administration, but it must be firmly and completely rejected nonetheless.