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US announces AI software export restrictions

US announces AI software export restrictions


A narrow ban targeting AI tools that analyze satellite imagery

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Illustration by James Bareham / The Verge

The US will impose new restrictions on the export of certain AI programs overseas, including to rival China.

The ban, which comes into force on Monday, is the first to be applied under a 2018 law known as the Export Control Reform Act or ECRA. This requires the government to examine how it can restrict the export of “emerging” technologies “essential to the national security of the United States” — including AI. News of the ban was first reported by Reuters.

The ban is extremely narrow — a relief for the Ai industry

When ECRA was announced in 2018, some in the tech industry feared it would harm the field of artificial intelligence, which benefits greatly from the exchange of research and commercial programs across borders. Although the US is generally considered to be the world leader in AI, China is a strong second place and gaining fast.

But the new export ban is extremely narrow. It applies only to software that uses neural networks (a key component in machine learning) to discover “points of interest” in geospatial imagery; things like houses or vehicles. The ruling, posted by the Bureau of Industry and Security, notes that the restriction only applies to software with a graphical user interface — a feature that makes programs easier for non-technical users to operate.

Reuters reports that companies will have to apply for licenses to export such software apart from when it is being sold to Canada.

The US has previously imposed other trade restrictions affecting the AI world, including a ban on American firms from doing business with Chinese companies that produce software and hardware that powers AI surveillance.

AI-powered software, like this program from Descartes Labs, can automatically tag objects and areas of interest.
AI-powered software, like this program from Descartes Labs, can automatically tag objects and areas of interest.
Credit: Descartes Labs

Using machine learning to process geospatial imagery is an extremely common practice. Satellites that photograph the Earth from space produce huge amounts of data, which machine learning can quickly sort to flag interesting images for human overseers.

Such programs are useful to many customers. Environmentalists can use the technology to monitor the spread of wildfires, for example, while financial analysts can use it to track the movements of cargo ships out of a port, creating a proxy metric for trading volume.

But such software is of growing importance to military intelligence, too. The US, for example, is developing an AI analysis tool named Sentinel, which is supposed to highlight “anomalies” in satellite imagery. It might flag troop and missile movements, for example, or suggest areas that human analysts should examine in detail.

Regardless of the importance of this software it’s unlikely an export ban will have much of an effect on China or other rivals’ development of these tools. Although certain programs may be restricted, it’s often the case that the underlying research is freely available online, allowing engineers to recreate any software for themselves.

Reuters notes that although the restriction will only affect US exports, American authorities could try and encourage other countries to follow suit, as they have with restrictions on Huawei’s 5G technology. Future export bans could also affect more types of AI software.