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The Trump administration has taken measures to crimp exports of artificial intelligence software as part of a bid to keep sensitive technologies out of the hands of rival powers such as China.

Under the new rule effected on Monday, firms that export certain types of geospatial imagery software from the US must apply for a licence to send it overseas except when it is being shipped to Canada.

“They want to keep American companies from helping the Chinese make better AI products that can help their military,” said James Lewis, a technology expert with the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies think tank.

The rule will likely be welcomed by industry, Lewis said, because it had feared a much broader crackdown on exports of most artificial intelligence hardware and software.

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The measure covers software that could be used by sensors, drones, and satellites to automate the process of identifying targets for both military and civilian ends, Lewis said. He said the move was a boon for the industry.

The measure is the first to be finalised by the Commerce Department under a mandate from a 2018 law, which tasked the agency with writing rules to boost oversight of exports of sensitive technology to adversaries like China, for economic and security reasons. The rule will go into effect in the US alone, but American authorities could later submit it to international bodies to try to create a level playing field globally.

It comes amid growing frustration from Republican and Democratic lawmakers over the slow roll-out of rules toughening up export controls, with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, urging the Commerce Department to speed up the process.  

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