Sunday, March 28, 2021

The Narcissism of Technical Differences

A couple of years ago, the US quietly put a worldwide export control on convolutional neural network based geospatial imagery software, the reason being its potential use by foreign militaries. It is worth noting that these are commercial software products which if open-sourced, their hardware dependencies aside, would not be treated under international jurisprudence as products but instead as free-speech. Which brings us to the subject of export controls, dual-use emerging technologies, and legacy international institutions.

Technology Export & Information

Export-control in itself is an old and important tool of statecraft, serving economic as well as military functions. However the present dichotomous classification of technologies based on military and non-military usage is severely outdated and in fact only holds-up when dealing with conventional weapons. AI in itself isn't a weapon but an enabler and having AI-superiority proves hugely advantageous when extending general capabilities across all kinds of defense systems and platforms, giving the machine learning software-stack and hardware accelerators a strong military utility.  

To deal with the problematic usage of such dual-use technologies, the most prominent international regime is the Wassenaar Arrangement. The arrangement, with respect to its fundamental role of helping to prevent the malicious use of technology, is pretty ineffectual when it comes to Artificial Intelligence and its ICT based applications. The de-territorializing effects of cyberspace present a clear institutional, regulatory, and compliance gap, where arrangements like Wassenaar only end up imposing yesterday’s standards over tomorrow’s technology. For example the first time when Wassenaar was invoked, it targeted software during the 90s to stop international adoption of cryptographic techniques over things like e-mail communications. That turned out to be a lot more than just diplomatic failure.  

And Wassenaar isn't the only international regime facing difficulty with technological changes. The MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime) for example has been updated to include long range UAVs and will need future changes sooner than later. It must be made clear that these controls do not work as intended. There is always great difficulty in enforcing contracts in emerging markets, there is an ever-present tradeoff between transparency and secrecy, and moreover in an environment of deception the compliance can not be truly verified even if states bring (they do) their own technical means of verification. This is a grand version of what game theorists call a POSG (Partial Observation Stochastic Game), really fascinating and quite intractable stuff.

A classic legend, of dual-use exploiting institutional ambiguities, sitting in the ruins of a medieval empire

Scholars have duly noted the inherent ambiguity in Wassenaar Arrangement, especially when dealing with intangible dual-use technologies. There is no consensus on whether the arrangement could adapt to technologies which are both socioeconomically foundational and militarily significant, without ironically turning itself into a dual-use multilateral instrument of coercive and economic statecraft. Such concerns are not unfounded in international politics, take for example when in 1993 the Americans got the Russians to cancel the transfer of cryogenic technologies to India in exchange for some US-Russia space cooperation. Software being fundamentally information, presents more compounded challenges for export controls given the largely unregulated flow of information across borders. Basically the trouble being that if you put sanctions over the export of fishes to someone, failing to prevent him from learning to fish is a foreign policy failure. Not surprisingly therefore, a recent US AI-policy report which declared advertising-technologies as "NatSecTech", contained that "Export controls should be utilized... to slow competitors’ efforts to develop indigenous industries in sensitive technologies with defense applications... (by) targeting discrete choke-points."

Proliferation & The Undefined

The Mahabharat is absolutely filled with instances of specialized and more devastating tools being limited-by-distribution to only select few, though those familiar with the text would concur that this non-proliferation regime did little to control privileged actor behavior and eventually an utterly morbid devastation followed up. Multilateral export control regimes today pursue a deterrence by denial framework towards global security. However, in case of ICT based goods when export controls suppress economic interests, proliferation shifts to a black market, even between member states, on shady darknet sites.

It takes no genius to see that legally binding restrictions on AI capabilities will be economically debilitating, so it is going to be really hard to enforce sovereignty over technology or even know which exact technologies to control. Let us consider a hypothetical scenario: Most of the power consumption (>90%) in AI operation happens due to what can be described as "data movement operations" — adjusting features, weights, biases, transferring intermediate results etc — so it is understandable that a better power management technique/toolkit could make the systems significantly more energy efficient. Now consider that in a not-too-distant future these computations are happening in autonomous edge devices fielded on both sides amid a lengthy military standoff in a remote inhospitable region such as the deserted upper reaches of the Himalayas. Would an innovative intangible power model here be treated the same way an advanced battery technology is treated? What if someone strategically open-sources it?
Neural Network Power Consumption

Given that even technologies used today in public transportation, agriculture and pollution monitoring, such as LIDAR and hyperspectral tracking, will be very easily directed to military usage; several researchers have suggested to use the phrase "omni-use" to describe AI and other related emerging ecosystem. It should be clear to whomsoever-it-may-concern that they cannot control the flow of omni-use intangible items and neither can it be ascertained decidedly what or from who an omni-use technology must be kept. In an area like this, traditional controls will only bring about shadow regulations and more of other unsavory economics.

Way Forward, Institutional Corrigibility

Most countries with strong R&D focus prefer their weapon-systems to be approached as black-boxes, not to be reversed engineered or subjected to exhaustive component analysis. On another side, in future insurgencies and urban conflicts, we could be seeing a lot of improvised weapon systems which utilize open-source and low cost OTS components, those which would just not be regulated with current approaches. What technologies are available to militaries greatly guides how societies evolve and technologies also have a tendency to become more efficient relatively quickly because of their near-constant evolutionary cycle of adaptation and reinvention. It is therefore fitting and important to have a better and continuous coupling with all stakeholders, and not get carried away by media headlines, trends and lobbying.

So building Institutional Corrigibility in our context can be thought of as designing mechanisms to facilitate objective stakeholders (from academia and industry) bring necessary outside correction in transgovernmental networks responsible for developing and implementing technology export controls. The multilateral international institutions must understand the difference between essential system complexity and accidental system complexity, and work every bit to minimize and first and obliterate the second.

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