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Inside the AI export controls debate

May 14, 2024
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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The federal government is wading into AI export controls, raising questions over how to balance national security and competition.

Why it matters: Lawmakers, citing cybersecurity concerns, don't want the U.S.'s most advanced tech in the hands of foreign adversaries.

  • But as China races to develop its own AI models, stakeholders are warning against inadvertently cutting off the U.S. from the rest of the world and giving Beijing a competitive advantage.

Driving the news: The AI export control landscape is heating up across the government, with the U.S. already taking steps to restrict China from AI chips and cloud services to train AI models.

  • The Biden administration is now considering restricting the export of closed-source AI models, such as ChatGPT, according to Reuters.
  • On Capitol Hill, lawmakers Thursday will mark up the ENFORCE Act, which would authorize the Commerce Department's Bureau of Industry and Security to use export controls on "any software or hardware implementation of artificial intelligence."

What they're saying: The Mercatus Center's Matt Mittelsteadt said export controls on closed-source models are unlikely to have the impact the White House is hoping for — an advantage over China — because it would be too difficult to track where the software is going.

  • Tighter controls on closed-source models would hurt companies like OpenAI and help open-source companies like Meta leap ahead, Mittelsteadt added.
  • Alondra Nelson, a former White House official who helped shape the Biden administration's AI policy, pointed to the dual-use nature of the AI tech that could be subjected to export controls.
  • "It's going to become increasingly difficult to draw that bright line between national security cases and other use cases," she said.

Behind the scenes: One source — citing conversations with people on the Hill and at Commerce, the White House and in the private sector — said many are "struggling to get their heads around" striking the right balance on the issue, and that there's no industry consensus.

Threat level: The ENFORCE Act's sponsors point to U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission findings that Beijing is using commercial AI advancements to develop its military capabilities and prepare for a potential war over Taiwan.

  • Foreign Affairs Chair Michael McCaul, China Select Committee Chair John Moolenaar and Ranking Member Raja Krishnamoorthi, and Rep. Susan Wild introduced the bill last week.
  • Following the passage of the TikTok divestiture bill, the China Select Committee and its new leader have "aggressive" plans to continue targeting Beijing, as Majority Leader Steve Scalise put it.
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