International diplomacy has traditionally relied on bargaining power, covert channels of communication and personal chemistry between leaders. But a new era is upon us in which the dispassionate insights of AI algorithms and mathematical techniques such as game theory will play a growing role in deals struck between nations, according to the co-founder of the world’s first centre for science in diplomacy.
Michael Ambühl, a professor of negotiation and conflict management and former chief Swiss-EU negotiator, said recent advances in AI and machine learning mean that these technologies now have a meaningful part to play in international diplomacy, including at the Cop26 summit starting later this month and in post-Brexit deals on trade and immigration.
“These technologies are partially already used and it will be the intention to use them more,” said Ambühl. “Everything around data science, artificial intelligence, machine learning … we want to see how can it be made beneficial for multilateral or bilateral diplomacy.”
The use of AI in international negotiations is at an early stage, he said, citing the use of machine learning to assess the integrity of data and detect fake news to ensure the diplomatic process has reliable foundations. In the future, these technologies could be used to identify patterns in economic data underpinning free trade deals and help standardise some aspects of negotiations.
The Lab for Science in Diplomacy, a collaboration between ETH Zürich where Ambühl is based and the University of Geneva, will also focus on “negotiation engineering”, where existing mathematical techniques such as game theory are used either to help frame a discussion, or to play out different scenarios before engaging in talks.
These tools are not new. Game theory was developed in the 1920s by the Hungarian-American mathematician John Von Neumann, initially to formalise the concept of “bluffing” in poker and later used to weigh up nuclear strike scenarios during the cold war. However, until recently such techniques fell out of mainstream use, “not due to a lack of technology but rather a lack of knowledge”, according to Ambühl. “Diplomats are not that accustomed to it.”
But as the world becomes more tech and data-savvy, those who ignore quantitative methods risk selling themselves short. Ambühl said that, as Switzerland’s chief EU negotiator, he ran a game theory simulation ahead of talks that led to Switzerland joining the Shengen area and a raft of agreements with the EU on tax, trade and security. The analysis indicated that it was in Switzerland’s interest for the negotiations to take place as a package rather than sequentially, and so the Swiss government insisted on this as a basis for talks.
Did the EU do their own analysis? “I don’t think so,” said Ambühl. “We didn’t tell them that we did game theory.”
Taking a mathematical approach can also help “de-emotionalise” underlying conflicts, according to Ambühl. He cites talks between Iran and the P5+1 countries in Geneva in 2005, where as facilitator he came up with a mathematical formula for the rate at which Iran would reduce its number of nuclear centrifuges. “When we presented the idea it was, ‘Now let’s talk about the size of this gradient, alpha, which is between 0 and 1’,” he said. “You discuss it on a more technical level.”
Can deep-rooted political issues really be distilled down into a gradient on a curve? Ambühl said that this misses the point, which is to crystallise what is under negotiation not to offer a fully formed solution. “It’s not about making a technical agreement,” he said. “It’s a political question, but you break it down. You divide it into problems and sub-problems and sub-sub-problems.”
A more scientific approach does not mean ditching traditional methods. “I’m not pretending you can only negotiate well if you do it this way,” he said. “It still depends very much on other factors like how much bargaining power you have, whether you have a charming negotiator, whether you have a PM behind who supports tough negotiations and how well have you prepared.”
Are there risks that any of these new approaches could backfire, with rival AIs escalating conflicts or arriving at diplomatic solutions that are mathematically optimal, but have disastrous real-world consequences?
“You’re not going to war only because a blind algorithm decides it – it goes without saying that this would be idiotic,” said Ambühl. “It’s always only a decision tool.”
“You cannot just blindly rely on it, but you also cannot blindly rely on the gut feeling of these politicians,” he added. “You have to make a clever combination of new technologies and the political analysis.”