29-09-2020 | By Robin Mitchell
With tensions between the US and China rising, waves of restrictions on key technologies are being imposed on each other in attempts to hinder the other sides technological growth. What restrictions are being put in place, who is asking for them, and why may they be needed?
For the past decade, the US and China have been locked in a cyber cold war that is seeing both sides rapidly developing key technologies such as AI. While trade between the two nations was mostly free of hindrance, recent revelations have begun to affect this partnership. The theft of intellectual property from the US by China, as well as the practice of industrial espionage, have led to the US imposing bans and tariffs on many Chinese products. The result of these bans has been China equally applying tariffs as well as limiting the sale of key technologies to the west.
AI and apps are not the only export-restricted items on the list; even semiconductor manufacturing equipment is being carefully monitored. Fearing that China having access to sub 10nm processes would put them at a technological advantage, the US have made attempts to prevent companies such as ASML from selling equipment to Chinese manufacturers. The US has also recently put a restriction on Chinese companies such as SMIC who have reported ties to the Chinese military. Also on the list of restrictions is equipment for key infrastructures, such as 5G networks, and the US has urged the world community to do the same.
The US is no the only country that is restricting the export of technology; China is also preventing the export of its AI technology. China has arguably one of the best AI industries globally with one example of its use being the mass facial recognition systems that can quickly identify thousands of people in a crowd. Other technologies that China have placed export bans and restrictions on include drones and lasers; two technologies that when combined with AI, allow for an autonomous system capable of mapping and navigation for potential military use. China has also placed restrictions on space materials, 3D printing, encryption, and even high-speed wind tunnel designs.
Recently, IBM made a statement urging the US government to impose further restrictions on western companies exporting AI technologies to China. Nevertheless, it also mentioned other technologies, including high-resolution cameras and algorithms used to collect data from images and databases which are often used in conjunction with AI image recognition systems.
The reasoning for IBM urging restrictions on AI systems and related equipment comes from the use of mass surveillance in China which allows for the tracking of citizens, as well as ranking citizens on their behaviour in society. The move also aims to prevent the violation from human rights via oppressive action that targets those in Chinese society based on religion in an attempt to create a more homogeneous society.
It is hard to determine the exact outcome from the escalating tech bans on both sides in the US-China conflict. The first question that needs to be answered is if each side is affected by such restrictions. China has developed some of the world’s most advanced AI systems, while the US (and west), have created some of the best silicon to date. Despite the restriction of silicon technology to China, it is claimed that China can already produce 7nm and smaller semiconductors meaning that the attempted ban on ASML selling their deep-UV lithography machine is arguably pointless.
China preventing the sale of key AI technologies to the US could also be equally pointless; there are plenty of major companies such as Google and Amazon who are developing powerful AI systems that could quite easily be used by governments in the west. With drones being well understood, and 3D printing being globally common, the restriction of such hardware may have little effect on the US, and the US introducing its self-inflicted bans on using Chinese equipment in key applications means that the market would never have been open to China regardless.
Some argue that the inability to trade information will hurt technological development, but this may not be the case. If AI applications have advanced military applications then having “open” trade borders may be more of a facade whereby limited technologies, which could have easily been developed on both sides, is the only tech that is traded (while the advanced military AI is either hidden from view or just not made available to trade). Forcing each side to develop their technologies could also see a new “tech-race” that may help to drive economic activity through insensitive government programs as well as developing the same tech using different approaches.