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Biden’s quantum leap

Protocol Enterprise

Hello, and welcome to Protocol Enterprise! Today: why the U.S. wants to impose new export controls on quantum computing despite the fact that nobody knows how much quantum is too much quantum, Microsoft’s decades-long relationship with researchers in China might never be the same, and Google’s attempt to speak 1,000 languages.

Kick ’em in the qubits

The Commerce Department is working on a fresh set of trade restrictions that seek to hobble China’s progress in quantum computing, Protocol has learned.

It’s not clear exactly when Commerce would implement a fresh set of export controls around quantum, but staffers are in talks with large and small tech companies involved in the industry. The department is receiving pressure to move more quickly from intelligence agencies, including the National Security Agency, which view China’s quantum capabilities as a potential threat, industry sources said.

  • Commerce staffers are in talks with large tech companies involved in quantum computing including IBM and Google, and smaller businesses such as IonQ and Quantinnum, according to industry sources.
  • The U.S. is aiming to reach an agreement with other countries around quantum computing, but wants to go farther than what is currently under discussion.
  • Commerce referred Protocol to remarks Undersecretary for Industry and Security Alan Estevez made last week, and the NSA did not respond to a request for comment.

Despite some progress in quantum computing tech, it remains an emerging technology, making it more difficult to identify ways to restrict access to it.

  • Export controls run the risk of hurting or even derailing progress in the broad field of quantum computing.
  • Stifling U.S. progress could allow other countries to take leadership positions, which would run counter to the administration’s foreign policy objectives.
  • Partly because there are no standard tools or methods of building quantum computers, there are also no obvious choke points for officials to identify — unlike the relatively mature chip industry.
  • Though much of the quantum industry frames performance around the core unit measurement a machine can process, qubits, Commerce staffers have acknowledged the importance of other thresholds, such as error-correction software.
  • The talks have been ongoing for years, including during the Trump administration, and a prior draft proposal received opposition from the industry.

The stakes around quantum computing could be high, if quantum computing companies ever deliver what they have promised.

  • If the promise of quantum computing is realized, it could meaningfully disrupt areas such as cryptography or chemistry, as well as potentially classical computing in general.
  • There is global acknowledgment that this is the case, and discussions between the Wassenaar nations have been ongoing for some time.

The moves around quantum computing are a part of a broad look by the administration into technologies that underpin U.S. national security and economy, and identify other tech that could be critical in the future.

  • Senior officials identified chips as one of the core sets of tech, and issued sweeping restrictions on chip exports Oct. 7.
  • Beyond chips, national security adviser Jake Sullivan identified computing in general (including quantum), biotech, and clean energy as key areas the administration would focus on.
  • Additional controls in those areas and activity around the U.S. government exploring how to achieve those goals will continue in the coming months.

Read the full story here.

— Max A. Cherney (email | twitter)

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Microsoft’s AI future in China

Microsoft was an instrumental force helping China become the AI powerhouse it is today. Now, as the very thought of a U.S. company partnering in tech projects in China draws scrutiny from lawmakers, national security hawks, and human rights advocates, the company could be forced to grapple with tough decisions surrounding the thriving AI ecosystem it fostered there.

“Basically you can argue that Microsoft Research Asia was the sort of seed capital from which a lot of Chinese AI companies and researchers and the sector really developed,” said Paul Triolo, senior vice president focused on China at global strategic consultancy Albright Stonebridge Group.

Microsoft established the research lab in Beijing, also known as MSRA, in 1998. Since then, elements of research conducted there have been used to build all sorts of Microsoft products. And research emerging from MSRA has helped advance speech recognition, natural language and image processing, and other deep-learning research, influencing work conducted at Apple, DeepMind, and Facebook and across the globe.

The contributions of Microsoft’s researchers in China “have and continue to benefit the international academic research community, which is why I believe it is important to invest in AI research in China,” Peter Lee, corporate vice president of Microsoft research and incubations, told me in an email.

But as the U.S. has widened its sanctions net to include more Chinese technology companies, what the future holds for Microsoft’s entrenched AI partnerships in China remains to be seen. “It is possible that the U.S. government could put pressure on Microsoft to not pursue certain types of AI research at MSRA, but this would be a major issue for Microsoft in the AI domain,” Triolo said.

There’s so much more in my full story, including memories from MSRA’s co-founders. Read it – and the rest of Protocol’s series evaluating the so-called AI race between the U.S. and China – here.

— Kate Kaye (email | twitter)

AI and chips: What the future holds for the U.S. and China

Join Protocol Enterprise’s Kate Kaye for a virtual event Thursday, Nov. 3 at 10:30 a.m. PDT that will feature two separate discussions between tech and policy experts on the future of AI-related partnerships among tech businesses, developers, and AI researchers in the U.S. and China, part of Protocol Enterprise’s special report on the future of global AI development amid the rise of nationalism.

In the first discussion, Kate and an expert panel — Davis Sawyer, co-founder and chief product officer of Deeplite; Xiaomeng Lu, director of geotechnology at Eurasia Group; and Abigail Coplin, assistant professor of sociology and science, technology, and society at Vassar College — will address AI tech collaboration between the U.S. and China, the possibility of further U.S.-China detachments that could affect the AI and semiconductor industries, how AI tech collaboration between the U.S. and China will be difficult to disentangle, and more.

In the second discussion, Kate will be joined by Matt Sheehan, a fellow in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Rebecca Arcesati, an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS); and Renard Bridgewater, a member of the Eye on Surveillance Coalition to examine the realities and misconceptions around AI ethics in China, the country’s AI and data privacy regulations, and the risks of an AI conversation in the U.S. driven by national security forces.

RSVP here.

Around the enterprise

Google announced an effort to expand its AI-powered universal speech modelto cover 1,000 spoken languages, up from about 400 at present.

Twilio added several new features to its customer engagement platform service, as it looks for ways to expand beyond its core communications services business.

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Thanks for reading — see you tomorrow!

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