The coming battle: AI, extremism and the new war of ideas

The coming battle: AI, extremism and the new war of ideas – words Lochlan Bloom

Living in the secular West it is easy to believe that religion is a completely outdated idea, a quaint tradition that still persists in some corners of the world, and one that will steadily wither as modern society progresses.

However, the news that Google is stepping up its battle against online extremism, through “the power of targeted online advertising” and machine learning, offers the potential to launch a new kind of religious warfare, a war of ideas, that may consume much of the next century.



Pitting AI against Extremism

Google is without any doubt at the top of the tree when it comes to combining  online advertising techniques and artificial intelligence so the fact that it might use these skills to curb radicalisation of vulnerable people might be seen as only good news.

The global search giant announced four key initiatives for its YouTube platform that include: the use of technology to help identify extremist and terrorism-related videos, an increase in the number of independent experts in YouTube’s Trusted Flagger programme, a tougher stance on videos that contain inflammatory religious or supremacist content and an expansion of its counter-radicalisation efforts.

“This promising approach harnesses the power of targeted online advertising to reach potential Isis recruits, and redirects them towards anti-terrorist videos that can change their minds about joining,”

Kent Walker, general counsel  at Google.

On the face of it, these seem entirely reasonable aims and while the story was mainly covered by the tech press, coverage has nonetheless been widely supportive. After all there are very few people, outside perhaps of ISIS training camps, that would argue that unprovoked killing of innocent people is a good thing.

The idea that we might use technology to identify and prevent the spread of violent ideology online therefore would seem only to be a good thing until we consider the potential battleground it sets out for our future.

Watershed to the century of religion

What makes Google’s recent announcement a watershed moment is the explicit move by the company to start manipulating ideological content through the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithims.

While it has been obvious to most commentators that global media platforms like Google and Facebook have long ago moved from simple online social networks the pretence that they are divorced from any ideology has been maintained but as it now moves to tackle “inflammatory religious” content that separation cannot be maintained.

As Google now embarks on identifying and removing religious and supremacist content it opens a path towards a  future where machine learning algorithms will play an ever more important role in ideological preaching and evangelism.

To those in the secular West, religion is often seen as an outdated concept, an idea that was surpassed with the arrival of the enlightenment. Post-Darwin we no longer need God to explain or permit either our existence or behaviour.

If asked to consider religion the average secular westerner might assume that globally religion will follow a similar path to that taken by Christianity in Western Europe over the last two hundred years – a steady decline from the religion of the state to a harmless past-time for a small proportion on a Sunday morning.

The likelihood of this secular vision of the future coming to pass however is in no way borne out by evidence. In fact research by the Pew Research Center suggests that by 2050 those unaffiliated with any religion will have shrunk from 16% in 2013 to just 13%.

In other words, if correct, the proportion of people ascribing to religious doctrine globally is set to increase not decrease.  Even as things stand the religious believers outnumber non-believers several fold.

Weaponized AI

Religious practice and extremist terrorism are of course not the same thing and Google’s attempts to tackle online extremism are not solely restricted to religious radicalization however by stepping into the arena of ideological manipulation it opens the way for those whose motives are not so noble.

At first, the awesome power of machine learning to identify our thoughts and intentions better than we can ourselves might seem like a valuable tool but what happens when extremists themselves seek to use these same tools.

If Google can identify individuals vulnerable to extremist propaganda what is to say that evangelical hate preachers cannot harness the same tools, what is the likelihood that religious zealots might want to invest heavily in such systems?

In the right hands these tools may reduce extremism but what happens when fundamentalist religious groups seek that same power to evangelize their message, to spread the faith.

“We may be building the infrastructure of authoritarianism… you build the infrastructure and it gets taken over by the people with money, with power, with authority.”

Zeynep Tufekci, techno-sociologist.

Already the statistical scale and the basic design of machine learning algorithms mean that humans can only understand the broad approach for their decision-making processes, not the specific reasons.

By planting its flag in the sand in opposition to extremism, Google is undoubtedly providing a valuable service but at the same time it plants the seeds for the development of a weaponized form of AI designed to wage a war of ideology for the hearts and minds of potential converts.

What is the likelihood that an extremist, who genuinely believes in the reality of their theology, What is more the process these systems use to convert a trainee ISIS member into a moderate Muslim or turn a white-supremacist into a multicultural liberal may well be beyond the comprehension of any human consciousness.

In a world where over 80% of the global population subscribes to a religion how long before the temptation to use machine learning algorithms by religious organisations in order to spread the faith becomes a reality? What means are in place to prevent an arms race of religious proselytization?

The coming battle: AI, extremism and the new war of ideas – words Lochlan Bloom

Lochlan Bloom is a British novelist, screenwriter and short story writer. He is the author of the novel The Wave, published by Dead Ink Books, as well as the chapbook  The Open Cage  from Australian publisher InShort and the novella Trade.




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