Joe Biden, IBM quantum computer
President Joe Biden observes the IBM System One quantum computer during a tour of IBM's facility in Poughkeepsie, New York, Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022. Image: White House / Adam Schultz

US touts new strategy for global standards on AI, quantum, machine learning

The White House has published a new strategy to push for international rules that would put guardrails around the development of technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, quantum computing and more.

Biden administration officials said that with Thursday’s release of the U.S. National Standards Strategy for Critical and Emerging Technology, they are seeking to “ensure the technology Americans routinely rely on is universally safe and interoperable.”

There are dozens of international standards and organizations — like the International Telecommunication Union and International Electrotechnical Commission — that govern almost every product and technology, from shipping containers to mobile phone networks.

A senior Biden administration official told reporters Wednesday that the Commerce Department's International Trade Administration found that approximately 93% of global trade is impacted by standards.

“Standards allow your cell phones, your credit cards to work anywhere around the globe. They keep your refrigerators and televisions from overheating. They're the silent operators that we often don't have to think about and enable modern connectivity to work,” the administration official said.

“And that's why we've worked across the U.S. government to develop a framework that will not only help protect the integrity of standards development, but will ensure the long term success and innovation both in the United States and like-minded countries, and a framework that aligns with the principles set forth in the National Security Strategy and the National Cybersecurity Strategy.”

Standards Developing Organizations (SDOs) typically consist of experts from industry, academia, civil society groups, and governments all of which work to ensure the safety and interoperability of technology and systems.

Eyes on Beijing

China is not mentioned explicitly, but the strategy is aimed squarely at it. Beijing has sought to increase its role in international standards bodies over the last decade through private and public stakeholders taking leadership positions in several standards development organizations.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said China has expanded the number of technical committees and subcommittees it participates in from 465 in 2005 to 668 in 2021.

The country is now third — behind the United Kingdom and Germany — in total committee participation and held 69 International Organization for Standardization secretariats in 2021. Chinese officials have shown particular interest in leading organizations creating standards for 5G — a technological arena where they are in a heated battle for supremacy with the U.S.

China’s State Council released its own national strategy for technical standards in 2021 and has repeatedly revamped the document, hoping to better align domestic policies with international standards.

While some within the U.S. government have argued that China’s increased participation is actually a positive development, some of their tactics have drawn concern. The Wall Street Journal reported that in one meeting on telecommunication standards, Chinese members were told by the government that they must back a proposal from tech giant Huawei.

When asked whether there was any chance for the U.S. and China to work together on standards development, a Biden administration official said a “really bad outcome in any scenario is that the globe bifurcates and there are standards being developed in different regions that are not helpful to the U.S. economy.”

But other officials on the call were more frank about how the plan related to China, effectively arguing that while inclusivity was desired, the goal is for countries to follow the lead of the U.S.

“I think the strategy outlines an inclusive approach to standards development early on the theory that when we put in the elbow grease with respect to R&D investment and with respect to the new manufacturing investment online, the United States, with our partners, really can develop the leading technologies and the leading standards, and we want as many as possible to adopt those,” the official said.

“We have strategic competitors that are focused on leadership in standards development, particularly for critical emerging technologies, that are vital for economic and national security. And this [plan] is part of stepping up our game in the context of that competition.”

'Tools and support'

The U.S. government plans to prioritize efforts for standards development around communication and networking technologies, semiconductors, AI and machine learning, biotechnology, navigation tools, digital identity infrastructure, clean energy generation, and quantum information technologies.

The U.S. will also "focus standards development activities and outreach" on automated and connected infrastructure, biobanking, electrified transportation, the critical minerals supply chain, cybersecurity and carbon capture.

U.S. officials said it was the first time the country had created a strategy around technology standards.

The plan focuses on four key objectives: investment in technological research and development, private sector and academic participation, increased education and training for the U.S. standards workforce, and the “integrity” of standards based on technical merit through fair processes.

The strategy outlines planned investments and future partnerships that will be forged to accomplish the four goals mentioned.

The efforts outlined in the strategy will be led by National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) but officials noted that the State Department’s Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy will also be involved.

U.S. officials stressed that one of the primary goals of the strategy was to “ensure that American businesses have the tools and the support that they need to be competitive in the international marketplace, and to be leaders in their respective fields.”

​​”We have to renew our commitment to the rules-based and private sector-led approach to standards development. And we will do this by supporting the private sector's enormous capabilities for technical leadership and standards development with strategic public sector investments in critical and emerging technologies like AI, energy technologies, biotechnology, quantum, and others,” a senior administration official said.

The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) coordinates the U.S. private sector standards activities while NIST coordinates federal government engagement in standards activities. Both will be involved in the implementation of the strategy.

Officials listed a number of ways various arms of the U.S. government are already engaged in actions that support the strategy, including several international partnerships like the International Telecommunication Union, the Quad, the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council, the G7, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation.

“It's almost impossible to overstate the importance of standards in shaping everyone's lives,” a Biden administration official explained.

“Standards enable us to develop technology that is safe, that can be marketed worldwide, and that can interoperate with other systems. standards also can help manage risk, security and quality in the development of new technologies.”

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Jonathan Greig

Jonathan Greig

is a Breaking News Reporter at Recorded Future News. Jonathan has worked across the globe as a journalist since 2014. Before moving back to New York City, he worked for news outlets in South Africa, Jordan and Cambodia. He previously covered cybersecurity at ZDNet and TechRepublic.