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Exploring the power of AI: Diplomatic language as Turing Test

Published on 06 July 2023
Updated on 29 March 2024

The journey to find the next Turing-style test for AI continues. After the bustling flea markets, we now venture into the sophisticated world of diplomacy. Can AI decipher the complex layers and multifaceted meanings inherent in diplomatic language? 

At first glance, diplomatic language may appear to be a simple code that an advanced language AI model like ChatGPT could easily crack. After all, diplomatic speeches often seem like elaborate rituals filled with customary phrases.

However, beyond the calm surface of diplomacy, there are much deeper meanings akin to poetry, as noted by Dr. Bi Scott, a renowned scholar in language and diplomacy. Just as poetry thrives on its symbolism and subtle messaging, diplomatic language carries a wealth of hidden meanings and signals, making it a formidable challenge for AI.

So, how does AI fare in this complex task? Let’s dive in to find out by relying on Diplo’s research on the interplay between linguistics, AI, and diplomacy. 

The contextual nature of diplomatic language

The nature of diplomatic language is deeply contextual, traversing diverse cultural, professional, and political landscapes. The skill of a diplomat lies not just in dealing with foreign counterparts but, sometimes more challengingly, in negotiating with constituencies back home. In addition, the historical context plays a significant role in shaping diplomatic negotiations. Contextual confusion often starts with definitions, as is the case with using the right prefix to describe the impact of digitalisation on diplomacy, naming an impact of digitalisation on diplomacy (see below).

Illustration with various prefixes: cyber, digital, e describing diplomacy.

While AI can detect specific contexts, such as historical contexts, understanding how they interact with each other, which is often unique and unpatterned, becomes a significant hurdle.

The power of the unsaid

The power of diplomatic language often resides not only in the spoken word but also in the unsaid. This unspoken is a code unto itself, dependent on cultural and policy dynamics. As Dr. Biljana Scott puts it:

The unsaid allows us to keep options open and retain plausible deniability. It also helps us to elicit insights and conclusions rather than dictate them. Finally, it is central to creating a sense of community through shared conventions: the expression ‘speaking the same language’ refers largely to that sense of solidarity that comes from understanding each other without having to explain ourselves. (Read more)

This element of the ‘unsaid’ can signal shifts in policy and carry critical messages, making understanding diplomatic language even more challenging for AI.

Constructive ambiguities as compromise

Diplomats frequently resort to constructive ambiguity – a term that refers to the deliberate use of ambiguous words or phrases to achieve compromise. Just like the well-known ‘duck-rabbit’ image, which can be interpreted as either a duck or a rabbit but not both simultaneously, constructive ambiguity harbours multiple interpretations that are often contradictory.

The image shows a drawing which resembles, at the same time, a duck or bird's head facing to the left, and a rabbit's head facing to the right. Viewers may see either the bird or the rabbit first, although they are looking at an identical image.

Another ambiguity is depicted by a famous quote about diplomacy which you can find today in many tourist shops. Sir Henry Wotton, the envoy of the English king to Venice, said…

‘the ambassador is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country’,

…whereby ‘lie’ meant both ‘lying abroad’ (residing abroad) and ‘lying’ (not telling the truth).  Can AI detect this ambiguity in the form of linguistical homophones (different spelling | same sound | same meaning)?

Understanding ambiguities, including constructive ones, is a significant challenge for AI, as it involves handling multiple meanings that defy straightforward categorisation. 

Read more about the role of ambiguity in diplomacy here.

Hidden differences in analogies

Diplomacy also leans heavily upon analogies to support arguments and draw parallels with similar policy issues. However, while analogies highlight common elements, they often mask crucial differences. AI’s current capabilities can detect these analogies but fall short when it comes to evaluating the differences hidden within them.

Read more about analogies in diplomacy.

Key but hidden ‘subtly woven’ phrases

Diplomatic documents are usually centred around a handful of key, often controversial, points. Hidden within a sea of words could be a crucial sentence, phrase, or even a single word that holds the key to understanding the agreement. Identifying these vital components, particularly without fully understanding the context, is a tough task for AI.

The delicate balance between give-and take

Trade-offs form the bedrock of any diplomatic treaty. They embody a delicate balance between give-and-take, a nuanced tango of compromise and concession. However, they are not always conspicuously present. Often, these trade-offs are subtly woven into the narrative, necessitating a profound understanding of context, history, and international relations for their interpretation. This presents another formidable challenge to AI’s analytical capabilities.

Venturing ahead: A confluence of AI, language, and diplomacy

Diplo, at the forefront of this exploration, continues to spearhead research and development in the confluence of AI, language, and diplomacy, by:

  • Testing AI models and AI-driven transcription, and summarizing applications
  • Investigating linguistic patterns in diplomatic language relevant to AI
  • Developing AI applications for diplomatic reporting and negotiating

The question remains, will AI eventually become fluent in the nuanced art of diplomatic language? It’s a question only time can answer, but one thing is certain: this exploration presents thrilling new opportunities for AI development and deepens our understanding of the world of diplomacy.

Join us as we journey further into this linguistic maze, discovering AI’s potential to master the intricacies of diplomatic language. 

Stay tuned for more exciting insights and breakthroughs

Note: Special thanks to Argentinian diplomat Gerardo (Gerry) Diaz Bartolome for comments and suggesting sub-titles for this blog post.

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