By Rik van Dijk

Artificial Intelligence is one of the most hyped developments of the 21st century. Researchers, pundits and policymakers alike philosophize and speculate how A.I. will change the way we travel, leisure and work. A 2017 McKinsey report estimated that as much as 30% of jobs will be automated the coming 20 years.

How will A.I. affect one of the world’s oldest professions? A field of work that seems notoriously resilient for the fast moving world around it. Will Artificial intelligence disrupt and revolutionize the profession of diplomats or will it pass by as so many other technologies did before it? To look what the effects of this new technology on this old profession will be, we first need to think about what diplomacy is. Diplomacy has three major components, language, law and negotiations.

Diplomats are masters of language. They understand not only the words of the language they speak but also the cultural details, the etiquette, behind the words. Diplomats are trained to understand a culture to the granular level. How can a machine compete? We have all used Google Translate, a translator in the Google search bar that has become quite accurate over recent years. Behind it is an enormous A.I. which learns new languages and more importantly, new details about the languages, every day. When competing in a tournament with the United States’ top translators in 2016, Google’s A.I. lost the completion, but just slightly. However, for a machine to understand an intangible concept as culture is difficult because it does not follow clear rules but derives from the experience of living.

Law and A.I. are already more apparent. In the Netherlands, courts are experimenting with algorithms that can support judges express court rulings on mundane trials, which take up a large portion of a judge’s time. Here it also important to mention IBM’s Watson, an algorithm originally designed to win the American gameshow Jeopardy.  Watson is now used for a great variety of tasks, from health diagnostics to cyber security research and cooking, all jobs requiring vast amounts of data. It is not a large leap of imagination to load a Watson-like algorithm with all the known national and international treaties and laws. Such an A.I. can assists diplomats in their daily grind of documents.

Negotiations may seem the hardest to grasp for algorithms. The McKinsey report lists politicians as one of the jobs safest from the rapid development in A.I., along with teachers and nurses.  Human interaction is the key denominator here. A skilled negotiator can use human interaction to his or her advantage by reading the opponent. However, the skill of negotiation may be closer to machines than we might assume. In the summer of 2017, researchers of Facebook conducted an experiment in which two artificial intelligences were tasked with a simple negotiation game in English. The machines had to barter and negotiate to buy books from each other. What happened was quite remarkable. The agents were able to compromise, feign interest and reach a deal.

So when we look at these three fundamentals of the diplomatic profession, can we assume that soon software programs will host embassy events? No, until A.I. can grasp the extremely complex concept of human interaction, out which broader societal norms and behavior flow, forming what we simply describe as culture, algorithms are ill suited as diplomats. However, we can see a near future in which A.I. relieve human diplomats of their more boring chores.  Moreover, it will allow for the tearing down of language barriers and allow diplomats to fully focus on honing their skill of understanding humans. 

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