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A journey of discovery: Using simulation and AI to teach and learn about digital governance

Published on 21 August 2023
Updated on 03 April 2024

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend 11 days in the small Dutch town of Driebergen, delving into the world of digital governance and policy with a group of 22 exceptionally bright students. Together, we embarked on a journey of exploration and learning, fueled by a blend of traditional teaching methods, hands-on simulations, and the guidance of an AI advisor.

This was part of the European Summer School ‘Digital Europe’, organised by the Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes (German Academic Scholarship Foundation) in cooperation with the College of Europe.

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Diving deep into digital governance

Our adventure began with a comprehensive overview of digital technologies and policies. We looked at what makes the internet work, learnt how to differentiate between hype and reality in discussions surrounding AI and its governance, and unpacked some of the promises and realities of quantum computing, biotechnology, and space technologies. We then moved into the realm of digital governance and tackled five main questions: What is there to govern? Why govern? Who is (or should be) governing? How to govern? And when to govern?

In exploring these questions, we talked about digital divides and the need to have more participation from the Global South and vulnerable and marginalised groups in digital governance processes. We pondered over the growing power of big tech companies and wondered how to balance innovation and regulation. We discussed the good, the bad, and the ugly in digital technology, and underscored the need for more boundary-spanners – those individuals who can bridge the gaps between different communities and help them talk more to each other. And, of course, we ended up with a long list of acronyms and a collection of drawings we reverted back to over and over again throughout the rest of the school. 

From theory to practice: Negotiating a Global Digital Compact

Once we had a solid theoretical foundation, we moved to practice through a simulation exercise. What better way to immerse ourselves in the complexities of digital governance than by assuming the roles of real negotiators? And so delegations representing the African Union, Brazil, the Caribbean Community, China, the USA, civil society, and the private sector embarked on the task of crafting a Global Digital Compact. This document will be the subject of real-life discussions at the United Nations in the coming months.

From the outset, our goal was ambitious: to create a Global Digital Compact that balanced realism with ambition. We tried to stay true to the challenges of a global negotiation and the real positions of the various delegations while also pushing the boundaries by outlining bold objectives and actions. Although we couldn’t cover all the topics that the compact is expected to address, I am incredibly proud of what the group accomplished. Sure, some proposals may seem idealistic to seasoned negotiators in the realm of global digital governance, but our intention was precisely to think outside the box. Plus, this was, at its core, a learning experience.

The AI advisor: Smartly using technology

One standout aspect of our experience was the integration of an AI advisor powered by DiploGPT. Each delegation had access to their own advisor which drew knowledge from relevant documents and materials pertaining to the Global Digital Compact. Students utilised the AI advisor for a range of purposes, from formulating initial positions to refining proposals. Interacting with this AI advisor became a valuable learning experience in itself. We sought to explore the strengths and weaknesses of the technology, critically assess its effectiveness, and learn about AI prompting in diplomatic work. 

AI-powered team advisor for Brazil

You can see below the interface for the AI advisor for the Brazilian negotiating team at the simulation exercise. Each of the eight negotiating teams had their own AI advisor.

A critical feature of AI advisors, powered by DiploGPT, is to identify sources for each AI-generated advice. Sources include current submissions for the Global Digital Compact, previous national submissions to IGF, UN GGE, OEWG, policy reports, and academic articles on digital governance, AI policies, cybersecurity, data protection, etc.

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When the time to share feedback came, several key themes emerged. Firstly, the AI tool proved instrumental in helping students understand and employ diplomatic language, a crucial skill in global negotiations. However, some students rightly pointed out that the AI’s reliance on past statements from specific governments or actors might not accurately reflect their current or real stance. True diplomats must differentiate between quoted positions and real intentions.

Another important consideration was the risk of over-reliance on AI. While it undoubtedly aided research and initial drafting, participants emphasised that the creative and analytical minds of diplomats should always take precedence. Lastly, many students highlighted the potential benefits of the AI for smaller diplomatic missions, provided it is tailored to the specific requirements of each Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

One notable feature of the AI advisor was its sources function, which allowed students to directly access the base documents underlying the results it provided. This encouraged deeper research and allowed for a more informed approach to negotiating positions.

Instead of conclusions

The students I had the privilege to guide were exceptional, hardworking, and inspiring. I could not have wished for a better group. 

Throughout our simulations, we encountered myriad experiences. Sometimes we found ourselves lost in the sea of acronyms or confused navigating the labyrinth of organisations, processes, and initiatives. We faced obstacles in negotiations and agonised over the tiniest of details. However, moments of frustration were surpassed by the excitement of crafting sentences that we believed would drive lasting change. We learned that technology can assist us, but only when we acknowledge its limitations, use it wisely, and combine it with human expertise and insight. 

As I’ve told my students, there is one thing I hope will stay with them forever: The importance of asking questions. They did this brilliantly during the summer school and I trust they continue to do so as they will be shaping our digital future in the years to come.

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