Blinken spotlights role of AI in diplomacy

Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during "A Conversation on Artificial Intelligence" at the State Department, June 28, 2024.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during "A Conversation on Artificial Intelligence" at the State Department, June 28, 2024. ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other State Department leaders explained how AI use cases such as data analysis and translation are already taking hold at the department.

U.S diplomats can already tap artificial intelligence-powered applications to translate and synthesize news and information from hundreds of countries in hundreds of languages, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday at an  agency discussion on AI 

At the event, which included the 2024 Data and AI for Diplomacy awards, Blinken, and other officials addressed the dangers and rewards of incorporating AI and machine learning technologies into the federal workplace. 

“Technology is amoral, not immoral. It depends how you use it, but we have to be deeply conscious of that as we move forward,” Blinken said. “The moment we're in is critical, because in so many ways, the choices that we make now will define how technology is used, how it's deployed, and to what effect for a long time into the future.”

Blinken touted the launch of AI.State, described as a “central hub for all things AI” and available to agency employees, and talked up several other tools, including the news translation software and another pilot that supports the summarization of diplomatic cables – something Blinken expects will support personnel transitions at embassies.

“Ultimately, this is a tool,” he said. “AI as a tool, and it's only as good and as effective as the people using it.”

Blinken added that the two major goals for State’s AI adoption are automating more routine tasks and leveraging technologies for improved analytics. He noted that translation services is at the top of this list, something the agency has been piloting since April

Leadership from State echoed Blinken’s opening remarks. Urza Zeya, the under secretary for civilian security, democracy, and human rights, said that the agency launched an AI-powered data collection management tool to help scan and fact-check internal reports. Zeya said that the implementation of the DCT aims to deliver about 30,000 hours in time saved for officers to focus on other priority areas.

“I think this is an example of technology supporting not supplanting our work,” she said. 

State’s Chief Information Officer Kelly Fletcher added that to help mitigate the risk in deploying new AI code in existing digital environments, the agency launched red teaming efforts to bolster enterprise cybersecurity. Mandatory training for State employees, routine system testing and visibility into what prompts individuals are feeding are among State's cybersecurity tactics.

Blinken noted that the agency remains aware that actors can weaponize AI to launch advanced digital attacks, but added they are mindful of potential risks.

“As long as we're focused on these potential downsides, as long as we're thinking up front about them and taking the necessary steps to mitigate, the potential benefits far outweigh what we have to be rightly concerned about,” Blinken said.