Fri. Jul 12th, 2024
Secretary Antony J. Blinken at “A Conversation on Artificial Intelligence (AI) at State”

MR GRAVISS:  Good morning, everyone.  I’m Matthew Graviss, the chief data and AI officer of the Department of State.  It is my distinct pleasure to welcome all of you here today – our dedicated employees, members of the press, and esteemed congressional colleagues.  Whether you’re here in person or joining us from around the globe, thank you for taking the time to be part of this important discussion on the future of diplomacy and the age of artificial intelligence.

In an era of rapid technological evolution, AI stands as a cornerstone of our strategy to enhance diplomatic efforts.  AI’s potential to analyze vast amounts of data in real time, identify trends, and provide insights is transforming the way we approach global challenges.  It empowers our diplomats with the tools they need to navigate complex geopolitical landscapes, foster international cooperation, and advance U.S. interests abroad.

At the Department of State we’re committed to harnessing AI’s transformative power responsibly and ethically, ensuring it aligns with our values of transparency, accountability, and respect for human rights.  By integrating AI into our operations, we aim to not only enhance our diplomatic capabilities, but also inform our efforts to set global standards for its use internationally.

Today we’re honored to have with us a visionary leader who has been at the forefront of these efforts.  As part of the department’s modernization agenda we have made significant strides in leveraging technology and innovation to advance our foreign policy objectives.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is my great privilege to introduce to you the Secretary of State, Antony Blinken.  (Applause.)

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you, thank you.  Good morning, everyone.  It’s 9 a.m.  We have a full house.  When I was in college that meant free doughnuts, or something.  (Laughter.)

But actually, I think it’s evidence of the more than deep interest, the fascination and enthusiasm for the work that we’re doing to integrate technology into the day-in, day-out life of the State Department, and the opportunity this morning to talk about the efforts that we’ve been making on artificial intelligence.  And I have to say, thanks to Matthew, thanks to a remarkable team here, I think what you’ll hear in the coming hours shows the work that we’ve been doing and leading in the federal government to make AI part of our lives.

Increasingly, we’re seeing across the board technology at the forefront of our diplomacy and our foreign policy.  And the revolutions that all of us are experiencing in our daily lives and in our non-work lives, of course, are having a profound impact on our work lives, and they’re also at the heart of strategic competition that we’re engaged in, at the heart of strengthening and deepening our alliances and partnerships.

We can see extraordinary potential, extraordinary benefit.  And we’ll talk in a few minutes about how we’re actually beginning to realize that.  At the same time, we all know, you all are deeply conscious of the challenges, the threats, the danger that technology can pose.  We know that for the most part – and we’ll see AI may be different – technology is amoral, not immoral.  It depends on how you use it.  But we have to be deeply conscious of that as we move forward.

But the possibilities are extraordinary.  We had a session at the UN General Assembly last fall, where we brought together technologists and countries around the world to look at how AI could be used to accelerate the Sustainable Development Goals which are, for the most part, stalled.  And what’s interesting to me is, as I travel around the world, the places where I find the most enthusiasm for artificial intelligence and technology more broadly actually is in the global majority countries in the developing world, because they see a way of accelerating and getting out of neutral on some of the big objectives that they’ve set for their societies and that we need to help them realize.

But 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.  And that’s why we have this intense focus on artificial intelligence, other technologies that are going to be shaping that future.  We have to make generational investments and generational decisions here at home, including in our technological competitiveness.  That’s essential to making sure that we remain the standard-setters, the rule-makers around the world.  Working with partners to direct technology to more stable, secure, healthy societies – that is also critical, and it has to animate the diplomacy that so many of you are engaged in.

We have the President’s leadership on this, including his executive order on AI.  We have the International Cyber and Digital Strategy.  All of this together, these are foundational elements for the work that we are and have to do.

So let me just talk a little bit quickly about the state of State in AI.  In 2021 we put forward our modernization agenda, and a big part of that, as you look at it, is making sure that we’re working with, using, integrating technology in the work that we’re doing.  Some of this entails experimentation, some of it entails risk.  But if we’re not leaning in, we’re  going to be left out and left behind.

Last fall we released the Enterprise AI Strategy, a roadmap to harness AI’s benefits to advance our foreign policy and to strengthen this institution.  And as I said, if you look around the federal government, I’m happy to report that this department is leading the way.  And indeed, other agencies and departments are looking to the work that we’ve been doing. 

Now, I think there are two major reasons why we want to focus on AI and its use here in the department.  First, and maybe most fundamentally, freeing up so much of our talent to focus on what’s really essential, to focus on the more strategic work, to help ensure that more routine tasks that technology can take on, that’s what’s happening, and they can spend less time face-to-screen, and more time face-to-face.  We can automate simple, routine tasks; we can summarize and translate research.  Something that would take normally days, even weeks can be done in a manner of seconds.  We’ll talk about this a little bit later, too – media monitoring.  Truly, already some extraordinary things the technology we’re deploying is helping us to do.

All of this you’ll have an opportunity to get into in some detail today. 

Second, I think we can use this technology to actually improve our analysis, to unearth new insights.  We’ve seen already, as we’ve been testing things out, using AI as a tool for helping negotiations in multilateral organizations – we’ll talk about that.  Using it as a way to combat disinformation, one of the poisons in the international system today.

So we’ll get into all of this in a little while, but what I’ve seen already gives me a tremendous sense of excitement about the potential, but also, again, a caution to make sure that we’re proceeding wisely, securely, safely, and that we are focused on some of the challenges and risks, as well as the opportunities.

Ultimately, this is a tool.  AI is a tool.  And it’s only as good and as effective as the people using it, and of course it’s only as good as the inputs that go into it.  FSI is integrating AI into its training, including safety, including responsible use.  And, of course, it’s critical that we attract and retain the best possible talent to help us in the integration of technology.

So you’re already seeing in a number of places missions using AI to support our work, and we’re going to celebrate the 2024 Data and AI for Diplomacy awardees today to recognize work that’s already been done, hopefully to inspire more work to help each of us actually visualize how this can be a part of the work that we’re doing at the department.

And I’m also very pleased that we’re launching AI.State, a central hub for all things AI at the department.  It offers formal and informal training, including already videos that are up there to help folks get started.  It’s a home for all of our internal State Department AI tools – libraries of prompts and use cases.  And I would just say, try it out.  I’d encourage everyone to test it out, to try it out, to explore it, to try to learn from it, and also lend your own ideas and input, because this is something that will continue to be iterative and a work in progress.

Basically, three words to help guide us:  Just get started.  And I think once you do, your imaginations will really take flight and you’ll begin to see more and more how the extraordinary technology that’s before us can have a profound impact on the work that we’re all doing.

In 1860, upon receiving the first telegraph, the British prime minister at the time, Lord Palmerston, reportedly said:  “My God.  This is the end of diplomacy.”  (Laughter.)  Every single technological breakthrough that we’ve had – whether it was the telegraph, the telephone, the radio, the internet – people have been concerned about what it means for their way of doing business, their way of life, their job.  And of course, disruptive, transformative technologies can have negative impacts that we have to guard against.  But I see this profoundly – AI, other technologies we’re deploying – as a way to strengthen what we’re doing, to strengthen our diplomacy, to better serve our country, to better serve our people, to better advance our interests in what is an increasingly complex world.  And so that’s what we really want to talk about today, and start a conversation, and continue it through the day and through the days and weeks ahead.

So thank you all for being here this morning.  Thanks to all those who are listening in.  Matthew, why don’t we start a conversation?  (Applause.)

MR GRAVISS:  Yeah, let’s – let’s dive in. 

So you talked about the modernization – the modernization agenda, you talked about the AI strategy that came out last fall.  Taking it back a little further, after you sworn in as the Secretary of State, your first engagement with the workforce, one thing that stuck out to me was your commitment to leaving the organization, the institution better than when you found it.  And we deployed a number of AI technologies over the last few years.  How do you see – why do you see AI as being critical to advancing our foreign policy objectives?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: So I think there are a couple of things that are worth reflecting on, and maybe just to start it at 60,000 feet.

One of the things that struck me actually last time I was in government during the Obama administration in the work that we’re doing was the essential role of technology in helping us to get the right answers.  And one of the challenges I think that we have – well, let me just speak for myself, that I have – is, of course, I’m not trained in science and technology for the most part, and I suspect that most of us that’s the case.  It tends to be that folks who are working foreign policy, working diplomacy are more trained in other skills.  And increasingly, it became evident to me as we working on these issues, including at the White House as part of the deputies committee, that virtually everything we were doing had as at least a part of its answer, some kind of technological or scientific solution.

And as I’ve said to some of you, I got to the point where I needed scientists and technologists at the table just to tell me whether I needed scientists and technologists at the table.  (Laughter.)  So we made a big effort, particularly the last few years of that administration, to do just that, to bring in extraordinary experts, but also to help us understand how we could use technology to more effectively advance our work, both in terms of the efficiencies that we needed to have within our departments and agencies, but also to problem solve, to take something like how do you better monitor an arms control agreement, how do you think about dealing with massive flows of refugees and keeping people connected, how do you build genuinely effective food security, health security, how do you think about the role that technology can play in advancing so many of these core missions. 

Fast forward to where we are now, and fast forward to what I think is change at a genuinely exponential rate.  Moore’s Law has been blown up.  And when you look at AI in particular, it’s truly extraordinary.  I think two things are really compelling.  One is – for me, at least, I’ve been doing this for more than 30 years now – I can’t remember a period of time when we had a greater multiplicity of challenges and a greater complexity of challenges and an interconnectedness among those challenges.  What I’ve seen already in the way we’re looking at and using AI is an ability to make greater sense more quickly of all of that complexity, to see the interconnections more immediately, and so help us make sense of the world and where we want to take it. 

Second, Matthew, I think we’ve talked a lot – and it’s also a big focus of the modernization agenda – how do we deal with a time when all of us, all of you are being asked to do more with less, precisely because there’s so much more on our plates.  It’s more complicated, and yet we’re challenged for resources, even though we’re fighting for them every single day.  If we can have technology like AI that genuinely frees up people’s time to make sure that some of these more routine tasks that can be done quickly and — that otherwise, if we were doing them, would take a lot longer, that is an incredible source of freedom and opportunity for the workforce to make sure that it’s focused on what really matters, and to use the value added that we bring to each task truly to the fore.

So we were already seeing through the work that we’re doing, including some of the beta testing of our chatbot, the extraordinary savings and time that this can bring.  This is just the beginning, and I think the opportunities are extraordinary. 

MR GRAVISS:  I think about that in the context of operational effectiveness.  I’m an engineer, so naturally I think about effectiveness and efficiency: on the effectiveness side, the ability to process just so much more data, our team across the globe is producing communications, thousands a day, and the ability to synthesize that is paramount, given the multiplicity of challenges and complexity of challenges.

During the demo we saw one of our brilliant data scientists talk through the ability to synthesize 30 cables quickly.  For all you FSOs that are transitioning this summer, the ability to come to speed provided you’re – the person who you’re replacing left a structured set of data even – either in a SharePoint site or anywhere, I mean —

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Yeah, this is incredible.  We saw this – I just saw this yesterday.  Some of you may have seen this – and just to pick up on what Matthew is saying.  So one of the challenges we all face – we’re doing transitions at an embassy, and you have someone who is departing, someone who is coming in.  The person coming in has to pick up the portfolio and, hopefully, in a way that doesn’t involve reinventing the wheel that someone spent the past three years building.  So as Matthew was saying, we saw one small demonstration of this.  The outgoing person leaves behind 30, 40, 50 cables worth of work in a particular area – let’s say its energy.  The incoming person trying to make sense of what the host country is looking for in terms of collaboration with us on energy, who the key players are, where we can have – be – have the strongest possible relationship, what they hope for from the United States, what they may be looking for from others, all of this is embedded in all of these cables. 

Now, if you had to go through all of them and try to pick out the critical elements, and you were doing that by reading them, taking notes, then trying to put all these notes together, that’s days, maybe weeks’ worth of work.  With one or two prompts that I saw on the – on our desktop computer in my office, in about five seconds that work together in an incredibly coherent and cohesive way, basically giving the incoming officer all the information that he or she needed about how to approach this problem, what the critical elements were for the host government, who the critical players were and actors were that officers had already engaged.

So a small example and, of course, this was, what, this was – Matthew, this is like 30 cables worth of work?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So imagine if its 100, 200, 500 cables worth of work that someone had produced over a few years.  You can just see the incredible efficiency and time that this brings to bear. 

MR GRAVISS:  I always – on any trip to an embassy, one of the things that I always say is every post has somebody who can play the guitar.  It’s not in their position description.  They – somebody can play the guitar.  That’s for sure.  And what we’re seeing in the AI space is inevitably – even if it’s not in somebody’s job jar, somebody can do this AI work.  Somebody is leaning in, even if they’re not an expert, they’re trying it out; they’re exploring; they’re willing to figure it out.  And I think the trick is how do we share that across the rest of the mission.  The other thing that was really enlightening was this is not resident in one section of a post, right?


MR GRAVISS:  We’re seeing this with the diplomatic technology officers.  We’re seeing this in PD sections – a lot in PD sections. 

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, that’s extraordinary.  I mean, this is another thing I’ve seen, and I know Liz and her team have been working with this.  We have one program that we’re using that is able to basically ingest a million articles every day from around the world, to be able to do that in a couple hundred countries in over a hundred languages and then immediately translate, synthesize, and give you a clear picture of what’s happening in the information space immediately – work, again, that would take hours or actually be impossible to do with that many inputs on a daily basis.  So this is an incredible tool for our PD officers.  Similarly, the ability to take social media platforms and sites and immediately, I think, take all of that in, translate it as necessary into English, and give our PD officers an incredible resource for understanding what’s actually happening in the information space in a given place on a given issue at a given time. 

MR GRAVISS:  Super innovative.  It’s called Northstar and was launched a couple of months ago, and so would encourage everybody to check that out. 

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  And is that something that people actually have access to now?

MR GRAVISS:  People have access to it.  Absolutely.  People can go right now and get access. 


MR GRAVISS:  Yeah, it’s a fantastic innovation focused on saving time.  And what we’re seeing – and you’ll hear from Under Secretary Allen and others in the panel following this, but the ability to summarize in the media space and then use that time that you saved to call the reporter, find out a little more context around why they wrote that article, maybe shape the next article.  It’s repurposing that time to the higher value asks that we want our experts in diplomacy doing, right? 

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Yeah, and I think that’s really the most critical point in many ways.  This is – one of the things that I know, again, people are understandably and inevitably concerned about is, are we going to be looking at this room in 10 or 15 years and seeing a physical manifestation of a chatbot and no one else – (laughter) – and the answer is we’re not.  And that’s because this technology is not a substitute for us.  It’s a complement to our work.  It’s an ability to make us more effective.  It’s an ability, as Matthew was saying, to really free us up to focus on the value add that only we, only you can bring to our work based on unique expertise that you have, based on the contacts, the engagements that you have; based on our basic humanity which really can’t be replaced.  So I think if we look at it in that way, you can see the extraordinary benefits to the work that you’re doing and the work that you will be doing, not a threat.  So this is really critical because, again, I know there’s a lot of anxiety whenever we’re integrating new technology into our work. 

MR GRAVISS:  So let’s dive into a little bit on that because we’ve covered operational effectiveness, operational efficiency, the sky is the limit.  It’s so exciting.  There’s also some risks, as you mentioned in your opening.  Are there particular risks that you’re thinking about, that you’re concerned about, that as we deploy this kind of technology we need to be focused on? 

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So I think there are a few, and I – and, again, folks are already very focused on this.  One, of course, is just our cyber security and making sure that as we integrate technology, including AI, we’re also not opening the door to greater risk, particularly when it comes to cyber security.  So this is something we have to be extraordinarily attentive to.  We have extraordinary chief information officer and an entire team that works on this, but we have to make sure that we have a secure environment. 

And then we also have to be very, very cognizant of some of the potential downsides of technology, including make sure that we’re not in some ways deep-rooting or accelerating things like bias in what we do and in how we approach issues.  This is critical.  And I think many, many discussions out there in thinking about our awareness of all of these challenges as we integrate the technology to make sure that we’re mitigating any of the downsides as we maximize the benefits. 

Those are two that jump out.  I know everyone is focused a lot as well on some of the broader threats that the misuse, the mal-use of AI could pose, including to our national security, enabling other countries, enabling other groups to weaponize technology in very, very dangerous ways.  Of course, we’re cognizant of that.  But I think if you look at this, 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. 

MR GRAVISS:  The – you talk about team sport when it comes to diplomacy all the time internationally.  And we can extend that down into this space – team sport – in terms of responsible use, mitigating bias.  Everybody – every employee is going to have a responsibility to ensure that they’re using the technology the right way.  And we have a – as you mentioned – a phenomenal chief information officer that – the StateChat, which is the name of the chatbot that you mentioned earlier; we got a lot of cybersecurity experts from Diplomatic Security, from Diplomatic Technology that are focused on making sure that we’re doing that right.  We also have a responsible AI team that’s focused on that.  So it’s really important that we recognize both the opportunities and the risks, and that we focus on that.

Let’s talk about – a little bit more about the workforce.  So imagine you are new to this game, right, and you’re questioning, like, how can it help me?  Any advice for the newest person to jump in to this space?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Yeah, it comes back to the three words I said earlier:  Just get started.  Again, all of us, especially you get to a certain age, you have a lot of trepidation about new technology, even as you watch your kids have incredible facility with it.  There’s a natural apprehension.  Just get started.  Plunge in.

The great thing about what you’ve already designed is the fact that we have available to everyone some pretty basic tools to help you just get started, to give you basic guidance and information on what a good prompt is, and how to use the technology.  And then play around with it, experiment with it, try it out.

And what I’ve seen, at least in my own relatively limited experience, but nonetheless, as I’ve played around with this – and I suspect pretty much everyone in this room, maybe at home has tried out a large language model – your imagination takes over.  And then it becomes something that you just get more and more into.  And you’re trying to refine the questions you’re asking, the inputs that you’re putting in.  And you start to see, right before you, the almost instantaneous results.

But the most important thing is this.  If you just get started, and if you take advantage of the great work that Matthew and his team have done to put together some tools to help you do that, I suspect that people will become extremely enthusiastic about AI and all the potential that it has for the work that we’re doing.

MR GRAVISS:  Again, team sport.  So a shout out to Ambassador Polaschik and the Foreign Service Institute.  And I think everybody in the department got an email yesterday on all the training opportunities within the AI space, which is – they’ve really leaned in, and that’s exciting.  It is about just starting, and asking yourself, “Can AI help with that?”  I ask that to myself, ask my team too, who is more advanced in this technology space.  But, hey, can AI help with that?  And if not, okay, keep moving.  If it can, hey, there’s an opportunity.  Let’s explore.

And if I can nerd out for a second, one of the cool things about StateChat is we can actually analyze the prompts that people are putting in, tens of thousands of prompts, so we can understand how the power users are using it, and then we can package that up and message that as training material for the rest of the workforce.  So go to AI.State, check out the information.  Just start, and you’re not alone.  Lots of resources to support you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Yeah, and I think you heard from Matthew two critical words:  Nerd out.  Go ahead.  (Laughter.)  Everyone has their inner nerd somewhere, so nerd out on this, and see where it takes you.

MR GRAVISS:  So as we wrap up here, I just want to ask you about 5 to 10 years from now.  Like, what does the State Department, what does diplomacy look like for us as we have these kind of tools in our pocket?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Look, I think this is where our imaginations really need to carry us, because I think if we were sitting here 10 years ago, so much of what we’re doing today – I suspect few people would have actually imagined that.  I’m not sure anyone would have seen a decade ago that we would be standing up an entire bureau to deal with cyber and digital policy and emerging technology, that we’d have a new bureau on global health, that we’d be reorganized in the way that we are on climate or, for that matter, on China.

So part of this is trying to anticipate where we’re going to be, what the critical issues will be to get ahead of them, and to organize ourselves in the most effective way possible to deal with them.  But I think, as you’re looking at technology like AI, what is now something that’s just in its infancy, where we’re really touching the tip of the potential, the tip of possibilities, I would see this as being totally, thoroughly, fully integrated into the work that we’re doing every day.  And we’re not even thinking about it or asking ourselves about it.  It is almost in the natural flow of work.

And just as there was a transition that was made not so very long ago if you walked around the State Department – a few decades ago – well, you’d still see typewriters on desks.  And then we got those really big Wang computers that some of us remember fondly that looked like something out of Star Trek.  Now all of the technology that we take for granted and assume, that was not the case.

I think everything that we’re just touching and starting to experiment with will be fully part of what we do.  But what I hope the impact really is, is the impact that we’ve been talking about, which is to truly free us up, all of us, up more to focus on what really matters, to use the unique qualities that all of us can bring to these challenges fully to the forefront, and to maximize the time we spend on what’s really important, and to minimize the time on things that normally take so much time but actually divert us from the core of what our work should be and our mission is.  That’s the – that’s the potential, and you can already see it, but I think it takes probably someone with a much better imagination than mine to really see where we’ll be in 10 years.  In fact, Matthew, maybe you have a thought on that, since you’re doing this day in, day out.

MR GRAVISS:  Well, when you have an 80,000-person workforce, not all the ideas have to come from the stage.  And – did you see how I escaped out of that one?  (Laughter.) 

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  It’s good, really good.  Great diplomat, too.  (Laughter.)

MR GRAVISS:  So we are seeing the greatest innovation happening in the field, we really are.  And the more the field is jumping into this technology and using it, the more we’re able to soak that up and then share that with other embassies, other missions across the globe.  That’s what I’m most excited about, and that’s our technology roadmap, has had that philosophy, is get it out, make sure it’s secure, let people learn, explore, and inevitably the most amazing use cases are going to creep to the top, and then it’s our job to make sure, in a rapid way, that we get that and make it available to the rest of the department. 

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Yeah, and this is a really powerful thing, because we do have the tremendous benefit of our own scale and reach.  And the fact that we have 80,000 people – most of whom are deployed around the world in some 200 countries, and who as a result of that may be seeing different angles, different ways of using the technology – that’s a pretty rich source of experience, experimentation, data, and results to draw from.  But it only works if you and your team are working, because what I’ve found and I suspect many of us have found going around the world for many years is that inevitably, somewhere, somehow, someone has found the solution or at least the beginning of the solution to a problem that many people are grappling with.  But if that particular solution isn’t shared, if it just stays with that one person, that one group, in that one country, or that one place, then you have this reinvention of the wheel that has to go on time and time again. 

Our ability to draw from the experience that people – that all of our teams are going to have, using, deploying, experimenting with AI all around the world, but then bringing it back and having these use cases, as you say, and especially the ones that are producing really interesting new things, come to the top but then be taken by you, shared across the enterprise – FSI also doing critical work to make sure that folks are up to speed and continue to be brought up to speed throughout their careers – that’s how this really works.  And that’s how it really becomes a powerful force in the life of the department.

MR GRAVISS:  AI and analysis without communication helps one person, right?  Innovation without communication helps one person.  We’ve got to share it. 

Mr. Secretary, thank you for an amazing conversation. 

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you, Matt.  (Applause.)

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originally published at Politics - JISIP NEWS