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By Andrea Peterson
Addressing an international conference convened by the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence in July, Secretary of State Tony Blinken and other US administration officials outlined a vision for building technology partnerships among democratic nations.
Much of the current wave of attention in Congress and the Biden administration surrounding R&D, technology, and supply chains is driven by concerns about the rising technological influence of rival nations, and especially China. However, Blinken argued it is not enough to “highlight the horrors of techno-authoritarianism.” He said the US must instead establish an alternative model of governance for AI and other emerging technologies that embodies democratic nations’ common values.
“Democracies have to pass the tech test together. And diplomacy, I believe, has a big role to play in that,” he continued, arguing that technological cooperation among democracies will be accomplished through the accumulation of piecemeal agreements.
Blinken highlighted steps the administration has already taken toward this goal, including setting up the US–EU Trade and Technology Council, which was announced in June and will focus on topics such as technology standards cooperation, secure supply chains, data governance, technology and human rights, export controls, and investment screening. He also cited the US’ recent bilateral agreements on scientific cooperation and emerging technologies with the UK, Japan, and South Korea, and pointed to the working group on “critical and emerging technologies” launched in March by the “Quad” countries: the U.S., Japan, India, and Australia.
Blinken reiterated the Biden administration’s interest in building more resilient supply chains for critical technologies such as semiconductors, saying that it plans to work with partners to “friend-shore” and “near-shore” supplies in addition to expanding domestic production. He also reported the administration is working with international standards organizations to promote a “transparent, consensus-based, and private-sector-led approach to developing standards for emerging technologies.”
More concretely, Blinken signaled that further specific policy actions are forthcoming. “We’re taking a fresh look at tools like export controls, investment screening, and visa screening, to make sure our strategic competitors are not exploiting our own innovative ecosystems to gain military or national security advantage,” Blinken said.
Outside of such technical matters, Blinken also stressed the importance of establishing international norms for the ethical use of emerging technologies, arguing, “If they're going to be used as part of our national defense, we want the world to have a shared understanding of how to do that responsibly, in the same way that we've hammered out rules for how to use conventional and nuclear weapons.”
For the US to meet its diplomatic goals, Blinken said the State Department will have to significantly expand its technological capacity. “Virtually everything on our agenda has some tech or science or innovative component to the solution. We need to do a better job bringing that knowledge, that expertise, that focus into the department and to everything we do,” he remarked.
Accordingly, Blinken said he has asked deputy secretaries of state Wendy Sherman and Brian McKeon to provide recommendations on how to “elevate and institutionalize” cyber and technology capabilities across the department.
Looking forward, Blinken said, “I intend to leave my successor at the State Department with strong capabilities in cyber and tech diplomacy, with clear leadership, lines of authority, organizational homes, and talent at every level. We need to become much better at anticipating the foreign policy implications of the next wave of innovation, and the wave after that. I want to shape the strategic tech landscape, not just react to it.”
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Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondents: Sophia Chen, Alaina G. Levine