U.S. companies that export artificial intelligence (AI) technology to analyze satellite images will need a special license to send such code to China and elsewhere, under a new rule set by the U.S. Commerce Department.
The regulation, which went into effect on January 6, 2020, is aimed at keeping sensitive geospatial software out of the hands of U.S. adversaries, particularly Chinese intelligence services, both for economic and security concerns. It is intended to secure U.S. advances in AI that could give the nation a military or intelligence leg up on its rivals.
Software programs applied by sensors, drones, and satellites to scan aerial images to locate targets for both military and civilian uses that could affect the economy or environment are included in the directive. Shipments to Canada are exempt from the rule. For now, the measure will be limited to the U.S. but officials may try to extend it to other countries, Reuters reported.
“They want to keep American companies from helping the Chinese make better AI products that can help their military,” James Lewis, a technology expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Reuters. Industry insiders expected more stringent restrictions, he said.
Reuters first reported that Commerce was defining rules to toughen up overseas sales of certain AI technology. A law passed by Congress in 2018 to set updated guardrails on exports of emerging technology is the springboard for the regulation. While the Commerce Department believes the ruling needed to be immediately implemented based on national security concerns, it is technically an interim restriction in that the public will be able to provide input until March.
“While the government believes that it is in the national security interests of the United States to immediately implement these controls, it also wants to provide the interested public with an opportunity to comment on the control of new items,” the rule release said, Reuters reported.