It’s been known for a while now that Estonia has made 99% of its government services digitally available. A fascinating topic that various thought leaders in the Estonian e-government sphere have been poring over is the development and implementation of AI-based assistants.
But now, this small digital nation has taken an even bigger leap forward as it starts replacing ambassadors with interactive chatbots.
From bureaucrats to Bürokratts
This revolutionary idea caught my attention, naturally. A pilot project run by a consortium of Estonian companies that ended on February 31st, 2021, will start replacing Estonian ambassadors with interactive chatbots. While some fine-tuning is still to be done regarding cultural differences, the prototypes that have been tested in the Estonian embassies in Luxembourg, Brazil, and Vietnam proved to be successful. What fascinates me about this project is that it is indeed on the frontlines of diplomacy and perhaps more visible to the general public than smart but intentionally invisible services like those mentioned previously.
Plenty of good reasons for digital ambassadors
Estonia has had an Ambassador at Large for Cyber Diplomacy for a couple of years now, and the more you think about it, the more does fielding chatbots instead of ambassadors around the world seem like a reasonable and practical solution:
- Chatbot ambassadors mean that Estonia can expand its global diplomatic presence in quite an inexpensive manner. Currently, the Republic of Estonia has less than 40 embassies worldwide, meaning that there is a lot of potential ground for ambassadorial chatbots to cover. This would also have enormous implications for the viral e-Residency programme – the number of card pick-up locations in the world is limited right now, and chatbot ambassadors could do a lot of the heavy lifting in helping the programme expand further.
- Estonians are not necessarily known for their great ability to do small talk – and even those that can hold a conversation for more than five minutes are unlikely to enjoy it. Chatbot ambassadors would not get tired by repetitive queries such as “Dear e-Estonia, does e-Residency give me the right to stay in the country physically?”* and, at least equally importantly, they could handle an almost unlimited number of queries simultaneously. Ambassadors of all countries will be familiar with the never-ending avalanche of event invitations, so handing some of those events over to a chatbot should be a welcome change for them, too.
- Lastly, these chatbot ambassadors could also enable an entirely different way of thinking about participatory democracy. The Estonian public has had good experiences with i-Voting since its inception in 2005, and odds are, they’d be up for using the online voting tool to decide how their digital ambassadors abroad should behave on diplomatic and policy-related questions as well. This would no doubt increase public interest in global politics, too.
Trying out new things is in Estonia’s DNA
With the international pilot project having come to a successful end, it is now up to the Estonian government to decide how to roll out the chatbot solution in diplomatic representations worldwide. While some embassies have signalled interest, others have warned about lack of compatibility with local customs – the chatbot ambassador representing Estonia in Berlin, for example, would require additional customisation to allow for fax-based document analysis and communication. It is thus clear that diplomacy chatbots are not a one-size-fits-all solution, but that won’t keep Estonia from thinking big. I, for one, am looking forward to our increasingly digital future and other April Fool’s jokes that were hopefully able to put a smile on your face.
*Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.
digital transformation adviser at the e-estonia briefing centre