US deploys tech diplomacy to cultivate leadership in emerging fields

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The Biden administration’s latest foreign policy pillar prioritizes uniform standards on critical technologies within ally nations.

The U.S. is doubling down on efforts to incorporate tech-diplomacy into its larger foreign policy dialogues, aiming to bring a sense of unity to technology standards as rapidly-emerging systems present major national security implications. 

Seth Center, the State Department’s deputy envoy for critical and emerging technology, touched on the Biden administration’s tech-centric diplomacy during keynote remarks before a George Washington University panel on Wednesday. 

He said the U.S. and likeminded countries are advancing more science and technology-centric diplomacy to raise awareness of the security implications of critical technologies, like artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

“There are a series of technologies that are posing really interesting impacts on our societies,” said Center. “They're having huge implications for how our economies are going to develop. And of course, they're going to have really, really serious consequences for the security environment.”

Part of the goal of increasing bilateral dialogues and partnerships focusing on emerging technology issues is to create what Center describes as a “shared technological future” with partner nations. 

“The number one test we really have in our technology diplomacy is to demonstrate around the world that democracies can absorb, integrate and develop technologies in ways that are consistent with, and strengthen, our societies,” he said. 

Crucial to the continued development and manufacturing of emerging tech systems is crafting a series of standards for international governments and private sector companies to adhere to — a process experts have consistently underscored is central to U.S. leadership in the global technology market. Center referred to such international adherence as a “core component” of ongoing U.S. tech diplomacy.

“There is this really interesting question of, how do democracies work together to absorb and develop these technologies,” he said. “We're gonna have to build rules of the road for these technology regimes.”

A broader sense of urgency to quickly and uniformly establish these rules for emerging tech development and usage comes as adversarial nations, such as China, pour funding into their domestic research efforts to innovate in the same critical fields. 

Center clarified that competition stems from analyzing the risk of advanced technologies being used to violate human rights or enable military advantages. A key aspect to this competition driving tech diplomacy is the ideology behind technology innovation, a factor which separates individual countries absent international standards.

“We now talk about values in the context of science diplomacy in a way that we would not have talked about 10 years ago,” he said. “And, in part, it comes back to that contest between democracies and authoritarianism and the way in which that is shaping our thinking about these issues.”

Center’s comments come as the U.S. and EU Trade and Technology Council meet in Sweden to discuss emerging technologies in a global context, emphasizing climate resilient technology and artificial intelligence. 

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo echoed Center’s comments earlier Wednesday, noting the importance of readily available guardrails for advanced AI systems that are currently in use.

“We want to continue to out-innovate at pace, but not so much that we can't afford to be extremely mindful of the risks and make sure that there are safeguards quite immediately,” Raimondo said. “We need to do this in a global fashion.” 

Beyond engaging foreign governments and institutions in the U.S.’s tech policy agenda, Center also described domestic science agencies as shifting their posture from fundamental research to application. 

“The imperative of going from basic science to commercialization application against the backdrop of strategic competition is increasing,” he said. “So this represents a fairly substantial shift in how the United States is thinking about policy and…that a whole series of really important governance choices are being made around these technologies right now all over the world.”