Oct 11, 2019

Blacklisting AI companies and the fragmentation of the global software supply chain

Bound by trade restrictions and political maneuvering, software development is becoming increasingly regionalized. The blacklisting of two Chinese AI technology companies reveals that the global software supply chain risks being fractured along political fault lines.

New US sanctions affect SenseTime, a Chinese tech behemoth valued at $7.5B and considered one of the world’s most valuable AI unicorns, and Megvii, another unicorn backed by Asian cloud giant Alibaba. Implemented in response to their alleged role in Beijing’s controversial surveillance programs, the ban prevents the companies from purchasing components from US companies without government approval.

Technology is both powerful and global—a valuable bargaining chip in any international dispute. For developers, that can complicate how they work and what tools they choose.

Recent history is flush with examples. GitHub limited users in disputed territories in Eastern Europe, as well as North Korea, Cuba, and Iran due to US sanctions. Huawei is likely building its own fork of Android after Google restricted access. Many cloud providers face growing threats from national governments to build servers within country borders due to data regulations.

AI engineering will likely not be spared.

In an age of data-driven development, AI restrictions trickle down the software supply chain. Researchers flock to particular companies and countries, regionalizing knowledge of advanced algorithms and data tools that become available to developers.

While open source technology and an open web have spread development tools around the world, international tensions may drive developers to think regionally rather than globally.

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