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The Surprising Impact of Technology on Diplomacy

The Surprising Impact of Technology on Diplomacy

Cars won’t need drivers. Factories won’t need human workers. Human settlement will extend beyond the boundaries of Earth. Institutions of our world are changing in rapid ways. Businesses and nonprofits are taking advantage of exponential technologies to upgrade their operations and explore better, more cost-efficient ways of fulfilling their missions. And so, too, can governments.

When we think of the administration of diplomacy and foreign affairs, too often the image that comes to mind is of staid, suited statesmen and women going about their craft in the same ways as have been practiced for centuries. But exponential technologies are opening up new and exciting opportunities for the world’s diplomats to fulfill their objectives in ways that take advantage of the 4th Industrial Revolution. Here are some ways that can happen:

1) Enabling instant translation of foreign languages

Foreign ministries around the world spend millions of dollars training staff in foreign languages that are critical to the work they do. The Foreign Service Institute, the US State Department’s training school for diplomats, invests hundreds of months of time and millions of dollars to teach its diplomats languages ranging from Chinese to Chinyanja.

Today, we already possess technologies that enable instant translations in real time, and the quality of those translations will only improve with time as machine learning capabilities augment the outputs of those translation devices. While there may still be a need to teach human beings foreign languages to facilitate relationship-building for higher-level engagement, there are also a lot of lower value-add transactions in the administration of diplomatic work where technology could intervene. For example, earbuds that instantly translate a foreign language speaker’s words into one’s own language could reduce the amount of time and money spent on teaching diplomats foreign language skills that may not be used very often throughout their careers.


2) Using big data for better decisions on the awarding of visas

It is already possible to use big data to predict with greater accuracy than human judgment the neighborhoods where crimes are likely to occur, how likely someone is to have a child in the next six months based on credit card transactions, and where the next outbreak of diseases are likely to happen.

The same approach can be applied to making decisions about who should or shouldn’t receive visas to enter a given country. Doing so would make countries safer and help boost tourism and economic activity by keeping nefarious characters out while granting entry to harmless foreign tourists who are currently being turned away due to subjective judgments of consular officers. Using big data in the administration of visas would also reduce the need for consular officers and increase the revenues coming into embassies and consulates around the world. Cutting costs and increasing revenues can help to streamline consulate operations and reduce the budgets needed to administer diplomatic services around the world.

Virtual Reality

3) Providing diplomatic services in dangerous areas using holoportation, telepresence, and virtual reality

The provision of physical security of embassies and consulates around the world is a critical need, particularly in war zones or in countries with political instability or other natural risks. In recent times, we have seen a spate of mysterious microwave attacks against US diplomats in Cuba that have caused permanent brain damage to affected staff, and we have seen the death of the US Ambassador to Libya at the hands of an angry mob of attackers.

What if we could administer diplomacy without putting our diplomats in harm’s way? Could there be “cyber embassies” in dangerous cities or in countries where a physical presence is not a cost-effective proposition? With the advent of exponential technologies like virtual reality, holoportation, and telepresence, this is possible.

A consular officer can conduct interviews with a local visa applicant in a room where the two parties holoport to create the feeling that they are in the same room together. A political officer can conduct meetings with dissidents in a country in virtual reality to avoid being tailed by the host countries’ security services. An economic officer can meet with local businesses via telepresence technologies like Beam from the security of the embassy when the trip to a physical meeting may require travel over dangerous and unsecured roads. We can dramatically reduce the need to physically put staff in dangerous environments without giving up our ability to project our foreign policies around the world and to engage with local stakeholders.

4) Using virtual reality to enhance public diplomacy

Public diplomacy—the administration of “soft power”—via engagement with local publics is a key plank of foreign policy. Public diplomacy sections cultivate people-to-people relationships by offering training and exchange programs to build bridges between local citizens and the embassy’s own country. Public diplomacy is also about spreading awareness of the embassy’s country’s values, culture, and policies to the public in the host nation.

Imagine being able to use virtual reality spaces to scale up the number of people that can attend a media training; instead of financing the travel of hundreds of people—often from distant regions to a central location—and paying for the physical venue and other costs, we can provide such programs to more people at a fraction of the cost by using virtual reality headsets and applications.

People who have never stepped out of their own country can experience the culture and civilization of another country by strapping on a VR headset and being instantly transported from Cairo to Carson City or vice versa. Studies have shown that VR experiences build empathy better than traditional media like TV’s and 2-D videos, so it seems wise to employ VR to bring together citizens of different countries across geographic distances.

5) Leveraging big data to strengthen embassy security

We have already heard how police departments are using big data and predictive algorithms to predict crimes before they happen. Embassies could employ these approaches in assessing threats to their embassies to keep their people safe.

6) Improving humanitarian support during crises through 3D printing, drones, and other technologies

During humanitarian crises, embassies play an important role in supporting the host country to recover from and respond to crises. Could 3D printing have helped Jordan provide better housing to Syrian refugees? Could drones have been used after the earthquake in Nepal to get medicine to remote villages? Could technologies that can turn thin air into water and food (yes, these technologies exist today!) help address famine and drought brought on by either natural or man-made causes? The answer to all of these questions is yes!

Self driving car

7) Reducing car accidents with self-driving vehicles

It may surprise you to learn that the number one cause of death of US diplomats is traffic accidents. Diplomats are often expected to drive in countries with traffic patterns much more chaotic and dangerous than their own. Self-driving vehicles can help solve this problem.

By using the Internet of Things to connect self-driving vehicles with important data on security conditions, traffic patterns, and natural disasters, self-driving vehicles can also update their routes in real-time to make sure that diplomats are traveling between engagements via the most secure routes and are protected as much as possible from the dangers of driving on perilous roads.

8) Using augmented reality to build better relationships and negotiate better agreements

A big part of diplomacy involves building relationships with counterparts in the host country, so being able to gather information about people in meetings or people requesting consular services is critical.

Imagine being a diplomat and attending a meeting while wearing augmented reality glasses or contact lenses. You would see the host country’s foreign minister in a room and, through the magic of augmented reality, you’d also see a display of background information that will help you in your relationship-building and negotiations. You might learn that the minister’s daughter is studying at a university in your country, and you could use that to break the ice. You might see a statement he or she made last year in an article or speech that supports a new policy you’re seeking support on, so you could evoke that quote in your discussion.

Augmented reality will empower diplomats to build better relationships and to have more meaningful conversations in-person with a diverse range of stakeholders that they need to collaborate with to successfully carry out their work.

9) Ensuring compliance with diplomatic agreements using blockchain

Contracts, treaties, and agreements between countries rest on the assumption of trust between parties. There may be certain transactions in global agreements that could be built on blockchain and smart contracts technology. Imagine that a country is required to meet certain austerity goals or achieve better human rights rankings to unlock aid or other actions by another country. With the proper data infrastructure in place, smart contracts can be used to ensure the compliance of multiple parties with an agreement.

This technology could also potentially be applied to military and political agreements. Imagine that an occupying army is required to withdraw from a village upon the village’s rebel militia giving up its arms. With the right data and IT infrastructure in place, a monitoring body can record when various milestones have been met, and that can trigger automatic execution of certain actions. When that village’s rebel militia hands over its weapons, the monitoring body would record that in some kind of an IT system, and the smart contract would take note and automatically trigger a chip in all of the occupying army’s weapons to renders them useless—thus ensuring that the occupying army cannot continue violent activity and must withdraw its forces. All of this is possible in the absence of trust or good faith between the parties because blockchain ensures the execution of the agreed terms of an accord.

These examples of technology-aided diplomacy demonstrate the value of investing in the development of moonshot solutions—the kind of bold innovation that we help startups and enterprises cultivate every day at Singularity.

Ravi Kaneriya

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