- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Stopping America’s enemies from using software and artificial intelligence tools however they wish will prove more challenging than restricting the proliferation of nuclear weapons, according to Ambassador Nathaniel C. Fick.

The inaugural leader of the State Department’s cyberspace bureau on Wednesday said the U.S. must focus on “running faster” to win the emerging technology race amid growing international competition from China and others.

“I think we need to confront an uncomfortable reality in the software era, which is that controlling access to these technologies is somewhere between very difficult and impossible,” Mr. Fick told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “If an isolated and impoverished North Korea under strong sanction could develop nuclear weapons, I would suggest that the development of sophisticated software capabilities is a lot easier than that.”

Mr. Fick said America needs to be a good steward of innovation domestically while deploying sanctions against adversaries abroad when the U.S. government thinks it can effectively shape the “global normative framework governing these technologies.”

Senators are skeptical that America’s enemies care about rules and norms. Sen. James E. Risch, Idaho Republican, said he sees China and Russia observing no boundaries and doubts cooperation would persuade those nations to change their pursuit and deployment of top tech.

“Whenever you talk about voluntary, anybody here think that China or Russia are going to voluntarily comply with any international norms when they think it’s in their best interest to do otherwise?” Mr. Risch asked at the hearing. “I mean, you got a country like Russia, they can’t even obey the simplest mandate of the United Nations not to abuse one of your neighbors.”

Mr. Fick told Mr. Risch that the State Department was “not naive” about getting its adversaries’ cooperation.

The ambassador said China used a strategy of intellectual property theft and other instruments of state power to expand its control over the telecommunications industry and it’s looking to do likewise in other technology areas, including synthetic biology. The Government Accountability Office defines synthetic biology as the engineering of the genetic material of organisms, such as viruses, to have new characteristics.

China’s use of AI for bioweapons is not the only concern on American policymakers’ minds. President Biden signed a sweeping AI executive order last month aiming to curb potential danger from the emerging tech and shape the U.S. government’s use of it.

Mr. Biden is meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday, and artificial intelligence danger is expected to be a leading topic of discussion, according to reports.

As the world leaders huddle in San Francisco, U.S. lawmakers are concerned China will be in charge of setting new AI rules.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Washington Republican, said Tuesday that America cannot afford to let China take an AI advantage. The House Energy and Commerce Committee chairwoman is pushing for a national data privacy standard as a necessary step for the U.S. as AI tools proliferate.

“It is critical that America, not China, is the one addressing these challenges and leading to both AI’s development and deployment and ensuring people’s data privacy is protected,” she said at a committee hearing.

Ms. Rodgers said protecting AI innovation is best accomplished with a light-touch approach to AI rules from the government and that Mr. Biden’s AI executive order missed the mark.

• Ryan Lovelace can be reached at rlovelace@washingtontimes.com.

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