Fixing The Leaks: US Restricts Export Of Geospatial AI Software

To create a sound foreign policy in the current era of the internet, countries should have a framework in place in order to protect their trade secrets, especially on the front of those technologies that have far-reaching implications such as artificial intelligence tools. The United States of America, which has been home to many groundbreaking AI innovations, announced restricting the export of specific AI software to the world, even to their rival China.

The Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) of the United States, yesterday announced that it will restrict the export of certain AI programs overseas, effective immediately.

These amendments were made to the Export Administration Regulations (EAR), which require the government to impose a licensure requirement for the export and reexport of those items to all destinations, except Canada.

All countries except Canada are required to have a license to be allowed to use the software made in the US.

Under the Export Control Classification Number (ECCN) 0Y521, this new rule will classify that software which has been specifically designed to automate the analysis process of geospatial imagery. And, therefore believed to affect the growing tech sector that are using algorithms to collect geospatial data and analyse satellite images of crops, trade patterns and the major changes that could impact the economy or environment.

The Department of Commerce and the Departments of Defense and State, along with the concurrence of other agencies will then decide whether the items are allowed for export based on their significance to the military or its potential of giving an intelligence advantage to the country.

According to the new rule, The software will be considered as restricted,

  1. If it enables the user to identify objects such as vehicles or houses, from within geospatial imagery.
  2. If it can manipulate the image properties such as scale, colour, and orientation.
  3. If it can run a deep convolutional neural network for object detection.

Geospatial imagery has been in use since several years, with the help of space agencies like NASA, to track natural disasters, find natural resources and also to keep track of what the rival nations are up to. However, with the proliferation of deep learning, any hobbyist can fire up their screens from a remote location, download the satellite imagery, run it on a convolutional neural network and can predict what’s in those images.

For instance, imagine if a supermarket uses this data to identify the type of cars in their parking lot to segment their customer base and forecast their next quarter or build a recommendation engine to manage their inventory. Sounds intrusive but no doubt it is a simple, ingenious application of computer science. 

On the other hand, what if that supermarket, in the act of goodwill, open- sources its software to the world and a rival nation gets a grip on it and uses it to track aircraft carriers and army bases quite easily. Now, that is not a pleasant sight, especially not for the United States who have potent enemies.

Taming The Dragon

China has been a subject to the majority of the US sanctions over the past couple of years. Though armchair experts have downplayed these sanctions by ridiculing Trump, the problem runs deeper than what it seems to be. China is notorious when it comes to intellectual property preservation, and China has alleged of being involved in many intellectual property thefts from US companies. According to a 2019 United States Trade report, China continues to be the world’s leading source of counterfeit goods and reflects its failure to take decisive action to curb the widespread manufacture, domestic scale, and export of counterfeit goods.

Though this new update on the amendment by the White House looks like a straight forward policy in the interest of the nation — thwarting theft from top countries like China and to avoid any strategic disadvantage is what this whole ordeal looks like.

That being said, this restricted export applies only to specific software that uses neural networks to discover ‘points of interest’ in geospatial imagery; things like houses or vehicles, which is very important but plays a minor part in AI.

The US lawmakers want the Commerce Department to speed up the process of restricting the export of sensitive technologies. However, BIS noted the requirement of allowing the public to respond to the restrictions. 

“This rule has being issued in interim final form because as the government believes that implementing these controls is the interest of the national security, it also wants to provide the interested public with an opportunity to comment on the control of new items,” BIS said.

Future Scenario

Last year, Google made headlines for patenting batchNorm, a widely used technique in machine learning. And, in spite of voicing openness and democratisation of technology, companies like Google and Baidu have shown interest in owning up to some AI real-estate. This, in turn, raises concerns of how this aggressive land grab in new fields can hinder innovation altogether and can result in an unfortunate AI winter. 

But there has always been a fear from the nations like China that have been benefiting off other’s technologies and gaining both unfair economic advantage, which it can leverage for its own needs. There is no doubt that the rise in the use of AI, is opening up a whole new can of worms — from privacy preservation, ethical dilemmas to IP infringement, there are a lot of external factors that require frequent revisiting to find a sweet spot not only to facilitate that ecosystems that would not only keep the ideas flowing but also to avoid them from blowing up in the face.

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Ram Sagar
I have a master's degree in Robotics and I write about machine learning advancements.

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