BIS Can Take Action to Stop China from Surpassing the U.S. in Artificial Intelligence

China Tech Threat’s Future of BIS project recently released a new paper about the need to “Build an AI Workforce at BIS to Strengthen Controls and Stop Illicit Acquisition of American Artificial Intelligence Technologies.”

To recap, AI is a critical technology for achieving economic and military advantages. China already spends billions every year to integrate AI components into its weaponry, and Chinese companies like Dahua, Megvii, and Hikvision have built surveillance camera empires around the world. China-based Lenovo also has funded and employs dangerous facial recognition technologies like Face++. The Chinese government will use its AI prowess to entrench authoritarian regimes, capture facial recognition and other data from the world’s citizens, and compromise American liberties and national security.

Chinese investment into American companies is likely in part sowing the seeds of Chinese military superiority, even if the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) or other organs of the Chinese government aren’t making the investments. As Congressional Research service noted in 2020, “In general, few boundaries exist between Chinese commercial companies, university research laboratories, the military, and the central government. As a result, the Chinese government has a direct means of guiding AI development priorities and accessing technology that was ostensibly developed for civilian purposes.” Even with CFIUS screening measures in place, it is probable that China could acquire American AI if not steal it.

China proficiently skirts export controls by using intermediating companies which transfer AI tech to the PLA. The Center for Security and Emerging Technologies (CSET) invokes the example of Beijing Zhongtian Yonghua Technology Development Co., Ltd., which purports only to be distributor of (civilian) technology, but in fact is a supplier for the PLA. BIS has to date done too little to close such gaps of oversight. As CSET has reported, “Of the 273 PLA AI equipment suppliers identified in this study, just 8 percent are named in U.S. export control and sanctions regimes.” 92% of known PLA AI suppliers, therefore, are free to purchase American AI technologies.

The Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) has an opportunity to help close loopholes and keep America the world’s artificial intelligence leader. BIS’ new Undersecretary, Alan Estevez, should leverage Pentagon relationships and expertise to fast-track a BIS strategy for AI. This can include creating a cadre of personnel with military AI expertise, including individuals who can devote themselves part-time from the civilian sector, who can well understand which artificial intelligence technologies should be kept away from PRC-based entities. Similarly, a major 2021 U.S. National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence report proposed the creation of a “Digital Corps” workforce of AI-skilled professionals who are assigned to different agencies at different times to work on key problems and projects. BIS would do well to create its own complementary unit of professionals without waiting for the rest of the federal government. Additionally, BIS can educate U.S. firms about the dual-use applications of AI and how it can be weaponized by adversaries.

Whatever BIS chooses to do, time is of the essence to stop China from gaining international primacy on artificial intelligence.