December 10, 2018

Emerging Tech Export Controls Run Amok

Adam Thierer

Senior Research Fellow

Jennifer Huddleston

Research Fellow

He’s making a list and checking it twice. Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.”

With the Christmas season approaching, apparently it’s not just Santa who is making a list. The Trump Administration has just asked whether a long list of emerging technologies are naughty or nice — as in whether they should be heavily regulated or allowed to be developed and traded freely.

If they land on the naughty list, these technologies could be subjected to complex export control regulations, which would limit research and development efforts in many emerging tech fields and inadvertently undermine U.S. innovation and competitiveness. Worse yet, it isn’t even clear there would be any national security benefit associated with such restrictions.  

From Light-Touch to a Long List

Generally speaking, the Trump Administration has adopted a “light-touch” approach to the regulation of emerging technology and relied on more flexible “soft law” approaches to high-tech policy matters. That’s what makes the move to impose restrictions on the trade and usage of these emerging technologies somewhat counter-intuitive. On November 19, the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security launched a “Review of Controls for Certain Emerging Technologies.” The notice seeks public comment on “criteria for identifying emerging technologies that are essential to U.S. national security, for example because they have potential conventional weapons, intelligence collection, weapons of mass destruction, or terrorist applications or could provide the United States with a qualitative military or intelligence advantage.”

The Commerce Department has long sought to control the use of such technologies through a combination of methods, including formal export controls. The process for establishing such controls was clumsily cobbled together over time, so Congress passed the Export Control Reform Act of 2018(ECRA) to formalize these regulations. ECRA requires that the President formulate an interagency process to coordinate these rules with the goal of creating, “a regular and robust process to identify the emerging and other types of critical technologies of concern, as defined in United States foreign direct investment laws, and regulate their release to foreign persons as warranted regardless of the nature of the underlying transaction.” As part of this process, the Commerce Department is to create a list “of foreign persons and end-uses that are determined to be a threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States . . .  and to whom exports, reexports, and transfers of items are controlled.”

Sweeping Breadth

That is what prompted the Trump Administration’s recent Emerging Technologies notice, which includes is a remarkably sweeping list of technologies that the Commerce Department is considering for the exports controls list. The list has 14 major categories:

(1) Biotechnology

(2) Artificial intelligence

(3) Position, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) technology

(4) Microprocessor technology

(5) Advanced computing technology

(6) Data analytics technology

(7) Quantum information and sensing technology

(8) Logistics technology

(9) Additive manufacturing / 3D printing

(10) Robotics

(11) Brain-computer interfaces

(12) Hypersonics

(13) Advanced materials

(14) Advanced surveillance technologies

The Department’s 14-category list also includes over 40 itemized examples of specific applications. For example, the “artificial intelligence” category alone includes a list of 11 applied types of AI, from AI cloud technologies and chipsets to neural networks to speech and audio processing.

The breadth of this list is remarkable in that it touches almost every emerging technology sector imaginable. It might have been easier for the Commerce Department to simply list those emerging technologies that will not be subject to review for potential export controls. It is an “everything-but-the-kitchen-sink” approach to emerging technology policy oversight and regulation that could clearly have far reaching consequences beyond national security.

There are some obvious dangers with such an open-ended review and it is important to remember these technologies have many beneficial applications as well as any potential risks.

Threatening Beneficial Uses

First, the potential export regulations create the danger of negative spillover effects that could undermine beneficial uses of each technology listed. All of the technologies listed have already been used in many ways that benefit both consumers and businesses. Limitations on their export could limit their availability or prevent improvements due to concerns that such broad interpretations of restrictions could limit the market.

For example, the regulation of AI mentioned above would not only address concerns about how AI might be used in weapons, but could even undermine the export of technology that has become a part of our everyday lives such as Siri in iPhones and Amazon’s Alexa. While the department claims that it seeks to “avoid negatively impacting U.S. leadership in the science, technology, engineering, and manufacturing sectors,” it is unlikely that any but the most narrowly tailored rules could actually avoid having a negative impact on innovation in the named technologies.

The more general purpose a technology the more difficult it will be to control the potential impact on the beneficial uses of the technology as well as the negative impacts. In fact, in some cases such as AI and robotics it can even be difficult to define what the technology is, because it is typically the applications and not the technology more generally that is being discussed and regulated. In many cases, the anti-export regulations would or could at least signal to entrepreneurial innovators that their time is better spent on other technologies or that their work should be taken elsewhere and risks the U.S. falling behind other countries in these important innovative areas.  

Undermining International Competitiveness

Second, the inquiry could undermine U.S. competitiveness by encouraging more offshoring in a world of innovation arbitrage opportunities. With our increasingly connected global economy and specifically the more mobile nature of many emerging technologies, it is becoming easier for innovators who find themselves subjected to onerous regulations in one country to move their research and development efforts to another. This is sometimes referred to as “innovation arbitrage.”

While the U.S. remains a leader in attracting innovators, this scenario has already played out several times. For example, Amazon moved its drone testing program to the UK rather than test in the US due in large part to FAA regulations regarding drones. Similarly, 23andme also initially took its direct-to-consumer genetic testing abroad after the FDA threatened to shut down their product.

Heavily regulating the export of general applications of these technologies could actually backfire and encourage innovators to take their research to countries like China where they do not face such regulations. R. David Edelman, the director of the Project on Technology, the Economy, and National Security at MIT, has noted that while the inquiry might be “intended to help US companies be more competitive,” the reality is that “it would almost certainly give Chinese companies that don’t face those same restrictions a sizable advantage in the playing field.”

Moreover, if export controls undermine domestic innovation and competitiveness in this fashion and benefit developers in other countries, it means the U.S. will have less of a say over the ethical development of many important technologies. Bloomberg contributor Noah Smith observes that, when it comes to the global race for hegemony in genetic sciences, China is poised to take the lead. “If the U.S. shies away from developing genetic-engineering technology, these riches will flow to China, or to whatever other countries seize the technological edge,” he notes. That would be problematic not just from a competitive perspective, but also from an ethical perspective, because America would have less of a say in guiding the development of these important but controversial technologies. “Dystopian outcomes are also less likely with the U.S. at the helm,” Smith believes.

Limiting or Ending Technologies Consumers Already Enjoy

Third, the inquiry could pose a threat to everyday consumer technologies that are already widely distributed. The most interesting thing about the technologies listed in the notice is that many of them have moved well beyond the “emerging” phrase of development. They are already out in the wild and being used by people every day.

For example, among the AI technologies listed in the notice are “speech and audio processing (e.g., speech recognition and production)” as well as, “natural language processing (e.g., machine translation).” We already enjoy a great many services such as those today, including Siri and Alexa. Meanwhile, there are technologies already on the market that help disabled and autistic children communicate and interact with their peers using AI and robotics.

For example, the KASPAR robot helps children with such disabilities learn social skills to interact with their peers and teach conversational skills. Similarly, technology that translates apparently nonverbal sounds and other methods of communication into speech via apps and other technology with various voices that others can understand could be subject to development ending regulations or be unable to help children in other countries if the proposed export restrictions are phrased too broadly. Not only might new restrictions limit the development of new technologies, it could even limit or eliminate those that we have already embraced and improved the lives of many.

Risk to Research & Open-Source Efforts

Fourth, the expansion of export controls for many of the technologies listed in the inquiry opens the door to widespread policing of open source coding and communications, but offers no explanation of how that would even work. A large number of the technologies on the Commerce Department list have both commercial and non-commercial applications. Innovation scholars use terms like “free innovation” and “social entrepreneurialism” to describe innovative efforts that are undertaken by individuals or groups of people to pursue a broader array of social goals or values beyond just profit-seeking.

A prominent example of social entrepreneurs engaging in free innovation involves the use of 3D printers and open source designs to voluntarily create prosthetics for children with limb deficiencies. What happens to collaborative, non-commercial innovations like that if export controls are suddenly imposed on additive manufacturing technologies by the Department of Commerce? If one participant is based outside the US, is that sufficient to subject such collaboration to export controls? What, exactly, would be subjected to controls? The 3D printers? The open source blueprints? The website hosting such information? It is difficult to imagine how such regulation would work in practice but it is easy to imagine the effect it would have if pursued: It would create a massive chilling effect on many beneficial forms of innovation and simultaneously threaten freedom of speech and academic research.

This same problem could play out in many other technology fields listed in the Commerce Department notice, including: robotics, speech recognition, biotechnology, and genetic engineering, among many others often engage in open and cross-border collaboration for open source development. Free innovation and social entrepreneurialism are expanding rapidly in these and other emerging technology arenas. Thus, export control regulation can no longer hinge on going after “deep-pocketed” corporations looking to sell physical systems. To be truly effective, regulations will need to cover bottom-up, “grassroots” innovation. But that move will have profound ramifications for the freedom to freely tinker with or even freely research important technologies and technological processes.

Dubious National Security Benefits

There’s a final danger associated with this effort: it might not help advance America’s national security objectives, and could even hinder them.

To the extent that ECRA and this new Department of Commerce effort lead to heightened scrutiny for the many dozens of technologies identified, it could undermine research and development efforts in many of those fields. It could do so directly (by formally limiting or forbidding domestic R&D efforts) or indirectly (by incentivizing many domestic emerging tech innovators to move their operations offshore, or discouraging foreign developers from setting up shop here). Not only would such actions risk the US losing its lead in innovation, it could actually result in such regulations backfiring from a national security perspective.  

At the end of the day, the problem here is that Congress is failing to clearly identify what is “essential to the national security of the United States.” ECRA just passes the buck on that thorny question to the Commerce Department for a laundry list of emerging technologies. By soliciting public input, the best hope here is that experts in these various emerging technology sectors will step forward and identify the trade-offs associated with inclusion of most of these technologies on the export controls list. Hopefully, the list would then be narrowed the much smaller class of applied technologies that have a very real, immediate, and clearly catastrophic potential for harm to the national security interests of the nation. That would have been the better way to begin this process, but Congress and the Administration have instead adopted the opposite approach here and now we must hope that they are willing to significantly pare back the list of technologies even being considered for inclusion.

Back to the Crypto Wars?

In a sense, this debate was foreshadowed by the debate in the late 1990s over export controls for encryption technologies. As encryption emerged, law enforcement and national security agencies were concerned about its potential use by bad actors to hide or destroy evidence or information by using encrypted devices or services and sought to require backdoors to be able to access encrypted data and to restrict the export of certain types of encryption and certain encrypted devices. Such requirements, as the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation’s Daniel Castro and Alan McQuinn pointed out, would actually reduce the security of everyday Americans to cyber attacks, negatively impact U.S. businesses’ global competitiveness, and reduce the competitiveness and innovation of the technology sector not only in encryption but in related fields as well.

Luckily, many of these concerns were avoided and encryption restrictions have been narrowly tailored. Recent tensions between the FBI and tech companies like Apple illustrate that this debate is far from settled. Now it seems that the Commerce Department’s proposed restrictions could create the same vulnerabilities more broadly for a great number of emerging technologies.

“Soft Law” & Next Steps

In some ways this move to regulate technologies via export restrictions shows the dark side of the growing trend of “soft law.” Soft law, as we discuss in more detail in our forthcoming paper, includes regulatory actions such as guidance documents, working groups, sandboxing, and many other informal regulatory mechanisms. Such mechanisms are often used to regulate emerging technologies in the absence of formal actions or because the traditional policymaking apparatus cannot keep pace with the rapid evolution of technology. In many cases soft law has been used to accelerate technological development that otherwise might have been limited by traditional hard law.

But where soft law thrives in the vacuum left by a lack of formal delegation and regulation, this inaction also poses risks. Agencies like the Commerce Department could extend amorphous powers over emerging technologies without the expertise to fully understand the way such regulations might negatively affect beneficial technological developments, which are typically hard to predict in advance.

A smarter approach to export controls for emerging technologies begins with a rational assessment of:

  1. a more robust evaluation of what really constitutes a tangible, immediate, irreversible, and catastrophic harm to the national security interests of the United States;
  2. the practicality of proposed controls for any emerging technologies considered for inclusion on the list;
  3. the wisdom of placing technologies on the list which already have been developed or marketed overseas (or appear poised to be); and,
  4. the potential unintended consequences that any new export controls might have on the innovative potential of American creators and companies, the future of research in important sectors, the free flow of knowledge regarding peaceful applications, and the competitive standing of the United States relative to other countries.
  5. whether catastrophic concerns about emerging technologies might be better addressed through multilateral accords or agreements aimed at achieving global consensus regarding inappropriate use and applications (as has been done in chemical weapon treaties and nuclear non-proliferation efforts).

Several specific technologies may still qualify for inclusion on the export controls list after such an evaluation, but it will start with a more limited approach and then expand as necessary. Such an approach assumes that in general purpose technology is not a threat until proven otherwise. By inverting the process in this fashion, the Administration wouldn’t be treating every emerging technology under the sun as guilty until proven innocent; innovations would be allowed to flourish naturally until the potential for harm is well-documented.

Unfortunately, the Commerce Department’s proposed approach does just the opposite and risks minimizing the benefits of these emerging technologies while doing little to advance national security interests in a meaningful way.