HPC Export Controls: Navigating Choppy Waters

Abstract

of high-performance computing (HPC) never goes away. In October 1995, President Clinton announced the second major revision to the HPC export control policy of his administration. Since then, press reports and opinion pieces [1, 2, 7–10], a General Accounting Office report [6], and isolated illegal sales and diversions of HPC hardware have repeatedly brought this issue back into public debate. In the past year and a half we have seen congressional hearings and new legislation tightening licensing requirements. The debate, however, has masked two important aspects of export controls since 1995. First, an attempt has been made to put the policy formation process on a more rational, explicit, and defensible foundation. Second, much of the debate has centered on applications that can be performed successfully using relatively low and readily available levels of computing by today's standards, most notably nuclear weapons development. Such applications can no longer justify an effective export control regime; the debate must find others that can. A Firmer Foundation In the nearly half century since U.S. HPC export controls were first formulated, there has been broad agreement about the general policy objectives , and bitter disagreement over implementation details. The objective is to slow development of certain applications by particular nations by limiting their access to the computing hardware needed. The policy has been implemented by subjecting the sale of computers whose performance exceeds a specified threshold to extraordinary licensing conditions. The question of which computers should be subject to such licensing has been hotly debated. Because the technologies, markets, and international geopolitical landscape are now changing continuously, the policy must be revised periodically to keep it realistic and defensible. Four major developments have made this possible. First, there exists a unifying framework reflecting the salient technical issues and viewpoints guiding policy makers toward selection of control thresholds. This framework, developed in [3, 4] and elaborated in [5], posits and tests three basic premises: 1. There are problems of great national security importance that require HPC for their solution, and these problems cannot be solved, or can only be solved in severely degraded forms, without such computing assets. 2. There are countries of national security concern that have both the scientific and military wherewithal to pursue these or similar applications. 3. There are features of the necessary computers that permit effective forms of control. Arguably, all three premises held during most of the Cold War. With …

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