A genie out of the bottle

Computers: Allowing China to buy models banned under obsolete rules was inevitable.

July 08, 1999

A DETAILED chapter on computers was included in the congressional select committee's damning report on the hemorrhage of military technology to China.

Its gist: Banning supercomputers from sale to China is a waste. The current ban was written in the 1980s, when giant mainframe computers -- housed in entire buildings in some cases -- were the only machines that could model nuclear explosions or help in weapons development.

But today's supercomputers are networks of desktop equipment that you could buy in any retail outlet. The notion of keeping that technology from China is a joke. So, for all practical purposes, is keeping it from such rogue states as North Korea and Iraq.

President Clinton may have seemed brazen or courageous when he decided -- after the report -- to loosen regulations that prevented the computer industry from selling high-powered computers to civilians in China. But he was merely realistic.

Custom-made supercomputers with military purposes will still be subject to license under the new regulations, but the administration is giving up the attempt to restrict the sale of mass-produced technology to allies. The nations that are rightly considered proliferation risks have no trouble buying personal computers with high-speed chips.

Individual export licenses will no longer be needed for computers faster than 10,000 millions of theoretical operations per second (Mtops), because a $2,000 PC today might be at 1,300 Mtops and several can be hooked together to top 10,000.

So the new rule, subject to congressional review, will be 20,000 Mtops for many countries. In China and proliferation-risk countries, it will rise from 2,000 to 6,500 Mtops for military users and from 7,000 to 12,000 Mtops for civilian buyers.

Lots of luck. Even that raises the question of who is kidding whom. This genie is out of the bottle.

Commercial game machines heading to toy stores this Christmas would qualify as supercomputers by the Mtops measurement. Anyone can play.

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