Stopping Key Tech Exports To China Could Backfire, Researchers And Firms Say

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For the last 15 years, Addgene has dedicated itself to accelerating medical research. The nonprofit in Watertown, Mass., does so by sharing research materials globally, like chromosomal DNA, used in the search for breakthrough medical cures.

That could soon change.

It is now one of thousands of research groups and companies caught up in a tech rivalry between the United States and China. This year, the Trump administration is expected to put new restrictions on the export of "emerging and foundational technology" — tools that are central to next-generation applications — to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands.

Vice President Pence has accused China of masterminding "the wholesale theft of American technology." In a foreign policy speech last October, he said, "Using that stolen technology, the Chinese Communist Party is turning plowshares into swords on a massive scale."

So the U.S. is considering some of its broadest export controls yet to slow the flow of technology to China, which U.S. officials see as a threat to American tech supremacy and security.

But companies and universities are pushing back, arguing such controls would hurt their ability to innovate. Ultimately, they argue, broad restrictions could make it harder to fend off cyber threats and to cooperate globally in scientific advances.

"It just slows down science in general for all the people doing good and important discovery research," says Joanne Kamens, Addgene's executive director.

Last year, the Commerce Department proposed 14 categories of "emerging technology" exports for tighter controls, ranging from artificial intelligence to computer chips. The sweeping nature of the categories put scientific researchers and company executives on edge.

"The problem is that these categories are exceptionally broad, denoting large buckets of technologies that are often layered into a diverse set of applications, most with no relevance to national security," says Lorand Laskai, a visiting researcher at Georgetown's Center for Security and Emerging Technology.

Take cybersecurity firm McAfee, known for its antivirus software. The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company incorporates machine learning, an application of AI, in its software to identify previously unknown malware.

"What might sound like a positive thing for national security will end up degrading ... a key component of technology that is defending governments, businesses and citizens within the United States," says Steve Grobman, McAfee's chief technology officer.

The new restrictions could mean McAfee would need permission to sell any new products with machine learning outside the U.S. McAfee also employs engineers in research and development centers all around the world, from Ireland to Bangalore. Grobman says the proposed export controls would make it nearly impossible to collaborate globally on software design and research.

That's because simply transferring knowledge of a restricted American technology to a foreign citizen could run afoul of export rules. Executives and researchers say that would hamper innovation.

"It's sort of a disaster all around because the whole of academic basic research, which has given rise of course to so many important discoveries that have driven all of the cures in the clinic, all of that work is done collaboratively with scientists between countries," says Addgene's Kamens.

Fears of industrial and academic espionage have already led to increased scrutiny over visas granted to Chinese scholars and students.

Knock-on effects from export controls could cut the U.S. off from a global research community. Meanwhile, China would race ahead on its own in basic research.

Fred Cate, Indiana University's vice president for research, says the export controls send a mixed signal to investigation centers founded on the premise of open, collaborative research.

"If you get a federal grant, we're required by law to not only publish it, but to make it available without charge," he explains. "On the other hand, we're being told ... to keep certain information, discoveries or material out of the hands of certain foreign nationals."

Facing new regulations, Cate thinks universities will proceed cautiously and limit research access to researchers abroad.

Last November, the Commerce Department began seeking feedback from academia, companies and tech specialists on export controls for emerging technologies.

Several companies tell NPR they toned down their public comments, especially on politically sensitive issues like immigration policy.

"We didn't want to be seen as advertising the fact that we employ so many foreigners," says a tech executive who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

"Companies want the U.S. to do export controls well, but there is a real fear to speak publicly," says another executive who would not use their name for the same reason.

Yet tech export controls could affect companies' supply chains and operations for a long time.

"They can force a company to make a design or architecture decision that then becomes the foundation of a product which could live for many, many years," says McAfee's Grobman.

Some analysts say the restrictions should be limited to technology with military applications.

"Let's be selective about what we want to protect but aggressive about protecting it," says Samm Sacks, a cybersecurity fellow at New America, a think tank in Washington, D.C. "Tools like export controls ... were meant to be used as scalpels and not blunt instruments."

Administration officials have signaled the final set of restrictions could be narrower than the initial list of emerging technologies proposed last November.

"Don't take from that notice of proposed rulemaking — the very broad nature of that list — don't take it to mean what's going to be export controlled," Lynne Parker, the assistant director of artificial intelligence at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said at a think tank event in February, according to the Financial Times.

Sometime this summer, the Commerce Department is expected to release a second proposed export control list for foundational technologies. Companies and universities that submitted comments hope the government will narrow down what is restricted. So far, they haven't heard back.

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