When you live and work in Boston, you sometimes feel like you are perched on a headland from which you could observe the rise of the digital wave and see it bear certain parts of our world toward new summits, while hurling others towards the depths of History.
The Greater Boston region is in fact one of the places where the digital revolution is in full thrust. On the banks of the Charles River, in the area situated between Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, research on new therapies today uses a single approach – computational genomics – which has only been made possible through the exponential increase in the power of computers. The also exponential accumulation of big data, here has led not only to the development of smartphone applications, but also to the creation of a new discipline known as “social physics” (as it seeks to describe human interactions with a statistical reliability that is equal to that used in physics). Lastly, with technologies allowing mobility and ubiquity, the term “multinational” once reserved for major groups, can today also apply to start-ups with less than 10 employees: with co-founders in Paris and Boston, an employee in Argentina and another in Zimbabwe, developers in Moldavia and in the middle of Siberia (n.b.: this is an actual situation).
Boston is also a place where this revolution is being analysed. The highly recommended reading of the opus by the MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, “The Second Machine Age”, thus gives a better understanding of how the digital wave, after those of the steam engine and electricity, is transforming our economies and our ways of working, particularly how certain tasks that were believed to be beyond the reach of computers and robots only a few years ago are in fact already being automatized today.
And what is the situation in the diplomatic profession? My epiphany took place one year ago, as I was organizing an “Entrepreneurs’ Café” at the ambassador’s residence, an exercise gathering all the French people in the region interested in setting up a business. The guest speaker was Jean Rauscher, founder of the company Yseop, which is marketing the “first artificial intelligence software that writes and communicates like a human”. One of its applications consisted in automatically creating a summary by computer, from any database or the Internet, on a theme chosen randomly. In just a few clicks and a few seconds, the computer presented its work which was one or two pages written in good French, with some graphs and pie charts to illustrate. With an additional click and one extra second the same result was “naturally” obtained in a different language…
Given this “magic trick”, it was difficult not to think of all the hours that I spent during my career compiling information and laboriously writing similar summaries! So diplomats should try like everyone else to anticipate the impact that the digital wave will have on their profession. The existence of this blog, the increasing number of “Ambassadeurs gazouilleurs" (tweeting ambassadors) and the replacement of their “telegrams” with the collaborative platform “Diplomatie”, bear witness to such rising awareness in terms of communication.
But tomorrow, will the case files for ministerial visits still be drafted by writers or automatically generated from Ministry databases? Will my computer immediately detect apparently harmless amendments that are in fact totally villainous, introduced by the Syldavian colleague in a text under negotiation? And, in order to resolve their differences, will Syldavians and Bordurians more easily accept mediation from the High Algorithm of the Secretary-General of the United Nations rather than from its High Representative, who is reputedly more easily influenced? On a more serious note, what will be the role and the countenance of our Embassies tomorrow, when, on the one hand, technologies allow ever more mobility and ubiquity, and on the other hand, the growing safety constraints weighing on these symbolic places make them run the risk of “bunkerisation”?
I don’t have an answer to these questions, but “seen from Boston”, and as we are invited by two MIT professors, it is in our best interest to “move forward with machines”, to fully utilize their capacities and to give them certain tasks in which they excel. We can thus free up resources and “available brain time” for things that machines struggle to do better than us, such as human contact, empathy, the fine-grained understanding of reasoning, emotions and especially the culture of the Other. Is this not, after all, the very heart of a diplomat’s profession?