“While we were busy building driverless cars we ended up with a driverless world” Tom Fletcher on tech, AI and the future of diplomacy

Alexandra Mousavizadeh
15 min readJun 21, 2020

Tom Fletcher has been a diplomat (he was the youngest senior British ambassador for 200 years), a foreign policy adviser (to three UK Prime Ministers) and an academic — he is currently Visiting Professor at New York University and becomes Principal of Hertford College, Oxford, in September. He is also a member of the Global Tech Panel, created to encourage a new collaborative approach between diplomacy and technology.

He is uniquely placed to understand the impact of digital technology on a global scale, the way it is changing power and what the implications of this rapid evolution are for international diplomacy. Four years ago he put his thoughts on paper in ‘The Naked Diplomat,’ a book that went on to become a best seller.

The premise of ‘The Naked Diplomat’ is that diplomacy and international relations are more important than ever as the world struggles to plot a future shaped by digital technology. Yet, as he points out in this interview, we have arrived at a critical point in human history, one where several of the major international powers seem to be pulling in different directions.

In this interview Tom also discusses the role that the UN can play and how future stability could depend on closer ties between governments, global organisations and representatives of the big tech companies. As he says “if you had a conference to deal with the challenges and opportunities of AI, you couldn’t just have the five big countries in the room. The tech companies would — rightly — laugh at the idea.”

Tracking the roll out of artificial intelligence across the globe, as well as the way it is regulated and governed, is central to the work of the Intelligence team at Tortoise

Our Global AI Index, which we unveiled last year, is the first index to benchmark nations on their level of investment, innovation and implementation of artificial intelligence; measuring factors related to education, funding, research, governance and talent. Yet while we map the rise of artificial intelligence, we are also very aware of the issues that surround it, such as the role of education in preparing societies for its implementation and crucially its impact on power structures.

It is these themes that Tom explores in this interview

Alexandra Mousavizadeh: You wrote in ‘The Naked Diplomat’ “Digital technology is changing power at a faster rate than any time in history. Distrust and inequality are fueling political and economic uncertainty. The scaffolding built around the global order is fragile. And the checks and balances created over centuries to protect our liberty are being tested, maybe to destruction.” Four years later, do you think this still holds true?

Tom Fletcher: Yes, I do. I’m still optimistic about humanity’s ability to find a way through this period. On current trends my grandkids are 200 times less likely to die violently than my grandparents. But when I look back at that book, I would probably now turn my optimism down a couple of notches. Three big causes for pessimism have become starker.

Firstly, the big tech companies have got bigger and less manageable, and less willing to be managed. The second one is that we couldn’t have predicted quite how fast the Trump/Putin combo would undermine the whole international order on which we’ve based the organisation of humanity for the last 75 years. While we were busy building driverless cars we ended up with a driverless world. I don’t go full throttle on the Requiem for the West, but wars happen when you get an economic downturn, rising nationalism or erratic leaders. We have the full set. And thirdly, the bad guys are pretty good at using the tech. My book looked at how the good guys could deploy it more effectively. And yet for a lot of the intervening period, characters like Putin and Trump have weaponised the internet. Chaos has been a ladder for them. Declining powers are sometimes more dangerous than rising powers.

Alexandra Mousavizadeh: Tom, you talk about power in your book. Can you just walk us through the big sweep of how power has rested, and where it sits now?

Tom Fletcher: Even ten years ago, you could see that power was moving from the ‘maps and chaps’ world that I was very familiar with in diplomacy and government. It used to look like a British banquet. You knew what order the courses came in and who sat where. It’s now much more like a Lebanese meal. More chaotic, less orderly. You don’t know what’s going to turn up on the table when, and who’s going to sit where but it’s a whole lot more enjoyable. One thing that strikes me, talking to people at the top of government, civil society and business, is that everyone assumes that power is somewhere else. No one feels powerful. Perhaps the one thing that Barack Obama and Donald Trump would agree on is the difficulty of actually exercising power. Bob Zoellick put it well: power is becoming easier to get, harder to use and easier to lose. And I think that sense of lack of power helps to explain the instability and fragility that we’re all feeling now. It’s an uncertainty over who’s actually in charge. We hear a lot about taking back control, and that’s a very human instinct.

And I think behind these day to day dramas that we tweet and agonise about — Trump’s latest clanger or Brexit or the rise of whichever party in Europe — there are these three really big trends. One is the growth of distrust in anything that looks like an institution, not just governments or politicians or the media, but doctors and schools and police services. The sense of agency that technology gives us also undermines our trust in authority.

And secondly you’ve got this growing perception of inequality. There’s no reason why the financial crash of 2008 will have fewer huge implications than the Great Crash of the 1920s. At least in 2008/9 when I was working for Gordon Brown we had effective international coordination. One irony of a pandemic that has been made worse by inequality and lack of international cooperation is that it has further worsened both. The virus has exposed and widened existing inequalities: countries that under-invest in health systems can’t respond effectively enough; countries where politics is failing to deliver fairness don’t have the collective will to act together; and countries that have created an underclass of unprotected workers have seen the virus spread faster as a result.

And then, of course, the third is the technological tsunami. We all talk about it, yet we don’t really comprehend the scale. How do we organise ourselves as a society and as a community in response? The combination of these dramatic trends is why these last three or four years are the new normal. There’s not going to suddenly be reset to a nice neat, organised, understandable time.

Alexandra Mousavizadeh: The trust in institutions has gone down, but maybe the importance of institutions have gone up? As we don’t know what direction technology and AI will take the world in, and I suspect it might be fragmented in terms of AI being used for good in some sectors and not so good in others. So what can institutions do? Are they equipped to regulate our world? And if not, why not?

Tom Fletcher: So the short answer is — sadly — no, they’re not. We need diplomacy and these institutions more than ever: if diplomacy didn’t exist, we would need to invent it. But diplomacy is losing altitude fast, and these institutions are orphaned and gouty. You look at the UN Security Council. At least three of the five permanent members are actively disrupting the stability they are there to protect. And the other two are the UK and France, who are going through their own crises of confidence.

Three years ago, I wrote a report for UN Secretary General António Guterres on what technology would do to the UN and how the UN could respond. And as a result, we set up the Global Tech Panel — chaired by the President of Microsoft and Vice President of the EU — to try to change the conversation between tech leaders and governments. You need translators for governments to talk to tech. It’s currently as if tech leaders are some kind of naughty school child, who governments want to calm down and behave themselves. Meanwhile, tech talks to governments like some sort of boring uncle: getting in the way of all the really exciting disruption. This is where ‘move fast and break things’ meets ‘move (very) slowly and build things’. And that linguistic, philosophical divide is getting worse. Partly because the people at the top of government and the top of international institutions — great, well meaning, purposeful people — don’t have what Megan Smith, Obama’s former CTO, calls TQ: tech intelligence. And they feel incredibly vulnerable. I was talking with the EU defence ministers in Helsinki and someone put a hand up and said, “Can someone tell me what AI is?”

To make it even more complicated, big tech is hoovering up talent so that divide, that pace, the control of data, that gulf between tech and government will grow. And as a result the creators of the tech are the ones coming to governments and saying, “Please tell us where the lines are, what are the ethics around using this tech? Don’t come and find us in three decades and tell us that we were doing something wrong”. People like Mustapha Suleiman at Google DeepMind have thought a lot about these issues. Elon Musk and others wrote to the UN about the need to debate lethal autonomous weapon systems. The UN didn’t know which bit of the system was even meant to draft the response.

Alexandra Mousavizadeh: If regulatory bodies, and governments can’t step in and fill that gap in terms of ethics and regulation when it comes to things such as autonomous vehicles or weapons, who will?

Tom Fletcher: So I think this is a really important question. In the short to medium term, it will fall back on national governments to take the lead on writing the new rules. So the good guys, in shorthand, will regulate their industries in an ethical way. But many of the bad guys won’t feel constrained in the same way. And so the arms race around AI and lethal autonomous weapons will be won by the wrong people. I think that should worry all of us. Whose ethics do we give the tech? Maybe we only get one chance to decide.

One related challenge is working out who actually has the convening power to bring together these discussions. With every big tech advancement in killing people — gunpowder, chemical, nuclear — the weapons have got ahead of the rules. And then it’s taken us, usually slowly and in an imperfect way, time to help the rules catch up. But there’s always been a convener who can bring together the right countries to make that deal or treaty. 200 years ago, when the challenge to Europe had been Napoleon, it was very easy to work out who should be in the room. No-one was saying “we need now to hear from a youth activist or a civil society representative or a corporation”. Now, if you had a conference to deal with the challenges and opportunities of AI, you couldn’t just have the five big countries in the room. The tech companies would — rightly — laugh at the idea. And so getting that right is one of the big challenges. It’s one of the things I’m working on now.

Alexandra Mousavizadeh: And so Tom, what are your options? What can you do in this future? And is there a role for diplomacy? What kind of diplomacy do you see in the future?

Tom Fletcher: So there are lots of different models for this. In Naked Diplomat, I proposed that we’d be sending ambassadors to Apple and debated Google having a place on the Security Council. Actually the Danes moved pretty quickly in response to that, and sent an ambassador to Silicon Valley, the world’s first tech envoy, Casper Klynge, a fantastic diplomat. He was on the real frontline of diplomacy which is not always a peace process and Africa, but can be between governments and big tech. Another model, of course, is to go the Nick Clegg route, and I know that Nick agonised over whether or not he should go into what many saw as the belly of the beast at Facebook. We have to get the conversation into a better place. A moment for me that really demonstrated the way that power is shifting was the effort by a British parliamentary committee to summon Mark Zuckerberg to appear before them. When he sent a junior official, they went to California, the first time ever a parliamentary committee had a hearing outside Westminster. And again, he sent one of his underlings. It’s a really interesting demonstration of the difficulty of holding these new powers to account. But social media didn’t create our desire to connect. Our desire to connect created social media.

Alexandra Mousavizadeh: Maybe shifting the conversation a bit to the bottom up in terms of empowering people and getting education right now, as you mention youth activists and civil society representatives. From your perspective and from your recent report, what is your view on education?

Tom Fletcher: My parents were educators. We used to have on our kitchen wall that great line: “Education is not filling a bucket but kindling a flame.” We are now facing technological and environmental change at a pace we cannot comprehend or control. We need the next generation to be brave enough to master technology rather than be mastered by it. To be kind enough to reduce inequality rather than widen it. To be curious enough to invent new ways of living and organising ourselves. We will need the knowledge that humankind has built over millennia. And the skills and character to thrive, adapt, learn, create, and coexist as global citizens.

That’s what I hope my children learn.

But there’s a really powerful question here, that Anthony Seldon has asked, about whether or not AI will infantilise or liberate humanity. These will be kids facing waves and waves of automation. Conservative estimates say that half of current jobs won’t exist in 2040–2050. So they will have to reinvent themselves constantly. They will have to understand much better than any other generation how to learn. I’ve tried to argue for a curriculum about the future, not just the past. How do we incentivise kids to fight for their education? This should be today’s civil rights struggle.

We spent two years on the future of learning looking very specifically at what we really need to teach the next generation. 75 million kids are not in school at all. But of the kids in school, the vast majority are learning the wrong things in the wrong ways. And that goes for the kids at the top of the pyramid in the best private schools in the world, just as it goes for the most marginalized or vulnerable kids out of education. We found that kids need an education now that is of the head, hand and heart. We can’t just teach them a bunch of stuff that they can already look up online. We can’t teach them the history of the wars that our countries happened to win when they need to learn about how we actually live together. We can’t just teach them the basics of biology without teaching them how to actually look after the planet. And in particular, how you develop something called global competence, which gives you the kind of cultural and intellectual ability to survive in a world of people on the move. It means developing much more emotional intelligence, empathy, ingenuity, problem solving, critical thinking. People call that 21st century education, I call it diplomacy. If the fight back against the forces that have dominated the last few years begins with reason, we have to help young people to reason. And that means completely transforming our education system to ensure they’re not just learning the right things, but learning them in the right ways.

Alexandra Mousavizadeh: How do you teach these life skills and emotional intelligence and how early do you start? Is this from kindergarten? Is it a thing that is a building block in the early educational years? Or is this something that continues on through to university?

Tom Fletcher: So it should start from the very beginning of life. But also our universities ought to be opened up as places supporting learning throughout life. The Danes have a fantastic model for that. If you take the strategic choice that we need to teach more skills and character, the rest is not too difficult. Teachers get this. It is the politics that gets in the way, because it all points towards teaching kids what we learned: how to be part of a hierarchy. Once you change that, it’s much easier to work out how to teach them critical thinking, problem solving, and so on. I was in Silicon Valley looking at the schools they send their kids to, and they’re doing all this already. They’re doing what they can to ensure that the robots work for their kids and not the other way round.

Alexandra Mousavizadeh: Tom. So you mentioned Silicon Valley. I’m curious if the other models that you’ve looked at seem to be fit for successful lifelong learning. Singapore has an educational credit, I think also Finland has something similar. Can you give us your thoughts on those?

Tom Fletcher: Today’s empires are tomorrow’s refugees. One worry I have is that while the Brits are assembling circular firing squads there’s a risk that Britain loses its niche as the most competent global education force in history. It’s no coincidence that four of the top ten global universities are British, or that the UK is the kitemark for educational accreditation in the world: people want that stamp of approval from a UK institution. And that is now being challenged because these more pioneering countries are moving towards teaching head, hand and heart. Finland took a set of fantastically brave political decisions two decades ago and they are rocketing up the league tables, far less focused on classic exams. They were brave by the way, not just because they had the right ideas, but stuck to them across different administrations. The Singaporeans are indeed doing really innovative pioneering work around 21st century skills, which is not just so that the kids can code but have the creativity to interact with machines and understand the ethics of that interaction. For now the UK still has the top spot, but we can’t take that for granted.

Alexandra Mousavizadeh: Mentioning Singapore, Finland, I must ask what is China doing on the talent side and educational side and is this something we should be looking at?

Tom Fletcher: The Chinese think about this a huge amount, and put more time and energy into creating that human capital than any other nation on Earth. My challenge to them has been: are they ensuring that the next generation develops curiosity? That’s what allows them to ask the right questions, to AI and of AI. It is the thing we love to see in our kids. And true curiosity relies on freedom of thought, freedom of expression. The Chinese model as currently set up won’t allow sufficient space for that kind of curiosity. I obviously come from a Western post enlightenment tradition of diplomacy and education. So I could be wrong. But I think you win that education arms race by letting people think for themselves, because that’s what sets them apart from the machines.

Alexandra Mousavizadeh: Tom, this is absolutely fascinating. I do want to end this conversation with two final questions. If we’ve just scratched the surface; artificial intelligence, education, the fragmentation of power, fragmentation within nations and across nations, high levels of inequality etc. all of the things that you’ve mentioned and moreWhat is it that worries you most? What is it that keeps you up at night?

Tom Fletcher: I think the big unanswered question is about how do we create more winners of globalisation and tech, while protecting those falling behind. We are utterly unprepared for an age of people on the move. Donald Trump and his ilk can build the biggest walls they like, but they can’t stop humans running away from climate crisis, and running towards opportunity. If you can see that opportunity across an ocean, you’re going to go for it: humans have always done that. And people will either be moving equipped with education, as doctors and teachers and journalists and maybe the odd diplomat. Or they will be coming without that education, hungry, angry and without agency. And we’ve seen, in the last four or five years since the Syria crisis, the refugee crisis, the rise of extremism in Europe, that our current politics cannot cope with that. I hope that we can return to being open and ready to coexist, because if we don’t spread those opportunities, including the right kind of education, we have some huge fault lines between and within our societies. And that’s why we need a new generation that is kinder, more curious and braver than we are. Education is upstream diplomacy.