Could AI ever replace diplomacy?

A thought from watching the impeachment proceedings: the relationship between major countries hinges on the personal interactions of a relatively small set of people on each side. The interests of the United States, a global power with more than 327 million people, come down to personal interactions between diplomats. However deep the Deep State might be, a small set of relationships matter for all countries in how they get along with other countries.

In the world of the Internet and computers, does it seem feasible to replace person-to-person diplomacy with Artificial Intelligence? Two humorous examples suggest this could be very hard:

1. The diplomacy built in to the computer game Civilization that never seems to work that well.

2. The arduous negotiations that can occur in the board game Diplomacy over relatively simple moves.

But, imagine the possibilities. A much reduced diplomatic staff! Quicker negotiations! Being able to blame an algorithm for mistakes rather than people!

Ultimately, would governments trust artificial intelligence to put their diplomatic fate in its hands?

Online survey panels in first-world countries versus developing nations

While reading about the opposition Canadians have to self-driving cars, I ran into this explanation from Ipsos about conducting online surveys in countries around the world:


Having online panels is a regular practice among survey organizations. However, I do not recall seeing an explanation like this regarding differences in online panels across countries. The online sample in non-industrialized countries is simply unrepresentative as it reflects “a more ‘connected’ population.” Put another way, the online panel in places like Brazil, China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia reflects the upper class and people who live more like Westerners and not the vast majority of their population. Then, the sample is also smaller in these countries: 500+ rather than 1000+. Finally, it would be interesting to see how much the data needs to be weighted to “best reflect the demographic proile of the adult population.”

With all these caveats, is an online panel in a non-industrialized country worth it?

The formula to resettle refugees in European countries

How will refugees be dispersed among European countries? This formula:

On Wednesday, shortly after European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced a new plan to distribute 120,000 asylum-seekers currently in Greece, Hungary, and Italy among the EU’s 28 member states, Duncan Robinson of the Financial Times tweeted a series of grainy equations from the annex of a proposed European regulation, which establishes a mechanism for relocating asylum-seekers during emergency situations beyond today’s acute crisis. Robinson’s message: “So, how do they decide how many refugees each country should receive? ‘Well, it’s very simple…’”

In an FAQ posted on Wednesday, the European Commission expanded on the thinking behind the elaborate math. Under the proposed plan, if the Commission determines at some point in the future that there is a refugee crisis in a given country (as there is today in Greece, Hungary, and Italy, the countries migrants reach first upon arriving in Europe), it will set a number for how many refugees in that country should be relocated throughout the EU. That number will be “not higher than 40% of the number of [asylum] applications made [in that country] in the past six months.”…

What’s most striking to me is the contrast between the sigmas and subscripts in the refugee formula—the inhumanity of technocratic compromise by mathematical equation—and the raw, tragic, heroic humanity on display in recent coverage of the refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, and elsewhere who are pouring into Europe.

The writer hints at the end here that the bureaucratic formula and stories of human lives at stake are incompatible. How could we translate people who need help into cold, impersonal numbers? This is a common claim: statistics take away human stories and dignity. They are unfeeling. They can’t sum the experiences of individuals. One online quote sums this up: “Statistics are human beings with the tears wiped off.

Yet, we need both the stories and the numbers to truly address the situation. Individual stories are important and interesting. Tragic cases tend to draw people’s attention, particularly if presented in attractive ways. But, it is difficult to convey all the stories of the refugees and migrants. Where would they be told and who would sit through them all? The statistics and formulas help give us the big picture. Just how many refugees are there? (Imagine a situation where there are only 10 refugees but with very compelling stories. Would this compel nations to act.) How can they be slotted into existing countries and systems?

On top of that, you can’t really have the nations of today without bureaucracies. We might not like that they are slow moving or inefficient at times or can be overwhelming. How can you run a major social system without a bureaucratic structure? Would we like to go to a hospital that was not a bureaucracy? How do you keep millions of citizens in a country moving in a similar direction? Decentralization or non-hierarchical systems can only go so far in addressing major tasks.

With that said, the formula looks complicated but the explanation in the text is fairly easy to understand: there are a set of weighted factors that dictate how many refugees will be assigned to each country.

More global cities working independently from their country

An upcoming conference in Chicago will look at how global cities operate across and independent of national boundaries:

“By pursuing their own business ties, trade missions, cultural exchanges and agreements with each other, global cities may even have the ability to disrupt the foreign policy agendas of their nations,” said Sassen. “Cities are more nimble and often less weighed down by national politics than central governments are, and that means they can push the envelope further and faster by working with other cities that share a similar set of social and economic issues and interests.”

Already, cities around the world have formed associations and networks to work together and share information on such issues as the environment, transportation, energy efficiency and economic development. These include the C40, comprising some 70 global cities working together on climate change; Cities for Mobility, with its 650 members in 85 countries focusing on transportation; and Metropolis, in which more than 100 cities network on environmental issues.

“With countries struggling to reach basic agreements, city-to-city communication and coordination is not just innovative, it has the potential to change the nature of the conversation about international commitments,” said Sam Scott, chairman of Chicago Sister Cities International, a knowledge partner of the Chicago Forum on Global Cities…

“We’re going to see cities like London, Paris, Chicago and Sao Paulo frame their own civic foreign policies, with their own offices and representatives – sort of embassies and ambassadors – in the great cities of the world,” said Richard Longworth, a senior fellow at The Chicago Council whose report, On Global Cities, will be issued in advance of the forum. “This won’t usurp the prerogative of national governments. But cities, like nations, have their own interests that they need to promote and defend. If their nations can’t do it, cities can and will.”

Given the size of their economies (on the scale with many countries) plus their international connections, this isn’t too surprising. But, it would be fascinating to see when major cities and governments clash. Perhaps something like an international trade policy signed by a country that a city willingly violates. Or a national security arrangement that a city goes against for economic gain. Could cities actually pull off a major change in policy or would nations react strongly?

Over the years, I’ve seen a number of proposals for how nations might become less important on the global scene. The rise of global governance and agreements (on the national level). The increasing scope of multinational corporations. Perhaps the fragmentation of powerful countries into competing racial, ethnic, and cultural groups. But, the independence of major cities might hint at the return of nation-states. When can we expect one to secede?

Putin claims actions in Crimera based on sociological polls

Did sociology surveys provide cover for Vladimir Putin to incorporate Crimea? Here is one source:

Russian President Vladimir Putin said the final decision on the inclusion of Crimea and Sevastopol into Russia was made in regards to a sociological poll conducted in Crimea.

And another source:

“Russia did not prepare to incorporate Crimea, the decision on the republic’s accession to Russia was made only after data were received about the mood of local residents”, President Vladimir Putin said at a meeting with activists of the All-Russian People’s Front on Thursday…

The Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol, a city with a special status on the Crimean Peninsula, where most residents are Russians, signed reunification deals with Russia on March 18 after a referendum two days earlier in which an overwhelming majority of Crimeans voted to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation.

While the international community is not likely to accept this reasoning, it does highlight an interesting issue: what happens when surveys show that people in one country would prefer to be in another? What then happens to national boundaries if there is strong public opinion to leave the current country? Perhaps the big difference here is that the people of Crimea didn’t revolt against Ukraine and seek to join Russia; Putin stepped in and pushed for this. But, there are likely lots of people groups in the world who might prefer to have their own country or to leave their current nation.

Another question might be regarding how this survey was conducted. I vaguely remember hearing similar figures that many in eastern Ukraine consider themselves to be Russian rather than Ukrainian while figures in the western side of the country were nearly opposite. How good are these sociological results?

Another megatrend for 2030: the rise of megacities

While the declining power of the United States seems to be getting the most attention in a new report from the National Intelligence Council, the report also predicts change involving cities:

Although the Council does allow for the possibility of a “decisive re-assertion of U.S. power,” the futurists seem pretty well convinced that America is, relatively speaking, on the decline and that China is on the ascent. In fact, the Council believes nation-states in general are losing their oomph, in favor of “megacities [that will] flourish and take the lead in confronting global challenges.” And we’re not necessarily talking New York or Beijing here; some of these megacities could be somehow “built from scratch.”

One of these ideas is new and the other is not. The idea that megacities will become more powerful is not a new idea as metropolitan regions have been recognized for their economic, political, and cultural power. (See the 2012 Global Cities Index.) Concurrent with the rise of megacities, particularly in developing nations, are concerns some have with the ability of nation-states to cope with new global issues. If you go further back, you find discussions of “megapolis” and how these combinations of large cities would come to dominate national and global life.

The other idea is newer: large cities “built from scratch.” The rate of urbanization in some countries over the last few decades has been fantastic. For example, Chinese cities have grown tremendously. In the Middle East, several cities have arisen out of deserts. Third World megacities like Lagos or Sao Paulo keep growing. While quick construction is more possible today (extra tall buildings constructed in 90 days!), I wonder how possible it is to move millions of people around to new cities and have some semblance of social order.

View from foreign observers: American voting system heavily reliant on trust

Foreign observers watching the voting process in the United States suggested it is a system that involves a lot of trust:

“It’s an incredible system,” said Nuri K. Elabbar, who traveled to the United States along with election officials from more than 60 countries to observe today’s presidential elections as part of a program run by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). Your humble Cable guy visited polling places with some of the international officials this morning. Most of them agreed that in their countries, such an open voting system simply would not work.

“It’s very difficult to transfer this system as it is to any other country. This system is built according to trust and this trust needs a lot of procedures and a lot of education for other countries to adopt it,” Elabbar said.

The most often noted difference between American elections among the visitors was that in most U.S. states, voters need no identification. Voters can also vote by mail, sometimes online, and there’s often no way to know if one person has voted several times under different names, unlike in some Arab countries, where voters ink their fingers when casting their ballots.

The international visitors also noted that there’s no police at U.S. polling stations. In foreign countries, police at polling places are viewed as signs of security; in the United States they are sometimes seen as intimidating.

It can be helpful to get outside perspectives on what takes place in the United States. Two thoughts based on these observations:

1. How long will this trust last? There was a lot of chatter online yesterday about voting irregularities. Do the two parties and Americans in general trust each other to handle voting? This reminds me of the oft-quoted de Toqueville who wrote in Democracy in America that Americans were more prone to join civic and political groups. The United States was born in the Enlightenment era where old ways of governing, church and tradition (meaning: monarchies), were overthrown and citizens turned to each other and a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” (Lincoln in the Gettsyburg Address). Of course, we can contrast this with Robert Putnam’s work in Bowling Alone which suggested Americans have retreated from the civic and social realm in recent decades. Plus, confidence in American institutions has declined in recent decades.

2. Trying to implement an American-style voting and government system in countries that don’t have the same history and culture is a difficult and lengthy task. In other words, this sort of system and trust doesn’t just develop overnight or in a few years. Voting systems are culturally informed. This should help shape our foreign policy.

Can anyone stop globalization?

In the middle of a story about politics within a troubled world economy, sociologist Zygmunt Bauman poses an interesting question:

“The big question is whether any political force is capable of stemming the tides of globalisation – of capital, trade, finance, industry, criminality, drugs and weapon trafficking, terrorism, and the migration of the victims of all these forces,” writes the eminent sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who has spearheaded much of the thinking in this area. “While having at their disposal solely the means of a single state.”

This highlights two key features of globalization:

1. It is much bigger than any single state, even though there might be winners and losers, posed as the United States and Haiti, respectively, in this article. Without close cooperation between nations or a binding and/or effective international authority, the issues Baumun cites are difficult to deal with.

2. Of course, I can imagine some asking whether globalization should be stopped at all. But, Bauman also provides a reminder that globalization includes the spread of negatives as well as positives.