At last, an AI existential risk policy idea
An obscure Dutch manufacturer could be the key to regulating artificial intelligence
By law, computer systems dealing with nuclear weapons and other sensitive military matters need to be “air-gapped”: physically separated from the internet, other computer networks, and other network-connected devices. To get data onto or off of an air-gapped computer requires direct physical access and the use of a USB drive or similar physical storage medium. That’s why in the original “Mission Impossible,” Tom Cruise has to break into a specific room in a specific building and directly access the computer — air gapping is very inconvenient for legitimate users, but provides a high degree of security.
A number of big U.S. labs are currently working on major AI projects involving huge numbers of GPUs and training models on bigger and bigger sets of data. Much of this work is done by the big computer companies you know — Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon, Meta — but also a handful of bespoke AI companies, including OpenAI, DeepMind, and Anthropic. The latter three stand out in that their founders and key executives say they agree with the AI risk worriers and believe there is a good chance that ongoing AI experimentation will lead to a terrible outcome involving AI takeover or human extinction.
But while you might think people undertaking research programs that they themselves believe are more dangerous than nuclear weapons research would copy safety practices like air gapping, the reality is they don’t.
And that’s because of competition. If the more safety-minded labs were to adopt logistically burdensome but safety-enhancing processes, that would increase the odds that the “race” to super-capable AI would be won by a less responsible company. This is traditionally one of the reasons why we have regulations. If there are two ways to make a widget and one of them is slightly cheaper but involves poisoning everyone’s drinking water, the unfortunate reality is that well-meaning executives are likely to be outcompeted by other executives who are not well-meaning. You need a rule that says nobody can poison the drinking water.
The additional wrinkle in the case of AI risk is that while stringent environmental regulation may push widget-making to China, that doesn’t necessarily have a big impact on America — if China wants to pollute its own rivers in order to make widgets while we enjoy clean water, that’s not a threat to us. But if we make the whole American technology industry follow responsible practices for AI development while Chinese companies use the irresponsible ones and win the race instead, that’s bad.
This brings us to an obscure Dutch company.
An “in” for chip regulation
As a policy columnist, I want someone to tell me what we should do in a policy sense about a neglected problem. But the frustrating answer on AI risk has long been “worry more” without necessarily doing anything per se. The fear was that not only is it hard to specify an appropriate regulatory scheme, but there also isn’t even a way to regulate the relevant players, because that consists of the entire global AI research community.
Except, there may be a way: ASML.
AI research labs all use lots and lots of GPU chips, primarily designed by AMD and NVIDIA and manufactured in factories called “fabs,” with Taiwan’s TSMC leading the industry. But China has its own semiconductor industry with fabs and fabless designers, so while being cut off from the western and Taiwanese semiconductor supply chain would hurt them, it’s not an insurmountable obstacle.
But the fabs for modern chips all use something called extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography as part of their manufacturing process. I won’t pretend to be able to explain how that works beyond the obvious point that it involves using extreme ultraviolet light to print the chips. Developing the EUV machines that the foundries use was very difficult and expensive. Clive Thompson wrote last fall that the Dutch company ASML spent $9 billion and 17 years developing their EUV technology — and as a result, they are the only suppliers of EUV machines in the world.