Why not? Robots dancing in Madrid's robot museum. Photo: Gerard Julien/AFP/Getty Images
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Nuclear armaments? Global warming? All hail our robot overlords!

I, for one, accept our new robot politicians.

hanks to Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute and the Global Challenges Foundation, we now know the 12 ways in which humanity is most likely to go up in smoke. Their proposals for mitigating the threats (the usual suspects: asteroids, pandemics, and so on) make for interesting reading. The team makes ten recommendations, such as improving early-warning systems, increasing focus on the more extreme scenarios and looking at the possibility of establishing a global risk organisation. But it may have missed a trick.

One threat on the list is artificial intelligence (AI): robot minds capable of rising up and killing us all. Yet the discussion makes clear that politicians are also a big threat. Perhaps we could engineer AI to rise up and implement sensible decisions that will save, rather than threaten, humankind.

The AI threat is a popular notion. Stephen Hawking has pronounced on a few occasions that we should fear AI and be extremely careful about the kind of intelligence we create. The robots, he says, may well turn against us. It is a measure of Hawking’s cultural cachet that he can get away with this kind of speculation. There is very little evidence – perhaps none, outside science fiction – to support his claim.

AI isn’t very good at anything yet, let alone taking over the world. A brief conversation with Siri, the iPhone’s “knowledge navigator”, will allay all fears of a robot uprising.
And although the capabilities of Google’s self-driving cars are impressive, let’s remember how good we are at driving. Every day, human beings make millions of journeys that rely on complex decision-making algorithms operating at lightning speed in the brain.

Not only are our brains agile enough to do this, but they have ensured that the computers and AI that we invent are placed in control of cars only within an extremely tight regulatory framework. So we’re not stupid, after all.

Yet our minds are also naive and easily panicked. That is why we can be persuaded, with very little evidence, that a silicon-based creation of our making could become an existential threat.

This hair-trigger facility for suspicion and peril-spotting is part of our evolutionary heritage. It is the mental equipment that enabled us to survive in environments full of predators. But it is also what makes lasting international agreements so hard to reach, creating threats that are far more dangerous than AI.

We can focus on Ukraine, to take a topical example, but zoom out and we’ll see that the overall threat from politicians is huge. That’s why the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has adjusted its “Doomsday Clock”, a measure of the imminence of our demise as a species. In January, the time on it was moved forward: we are now at “three minutes to midnight”. The Bulletin warns that, with the governments of the US and Russia racing to modernise their nuclear arsenals, “International leaders are failing to perform their most important duty – ensuring and preserving the health and vitality of human civilisation.”

And it’s not just nuclear Armageddon. There are slow deaths on the horizon, too. Rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were identified as a possible threat to humanity decades ago, yet little of consequence has been done about this.

It doesn’t seem to be within our capabilities to find a lasting solution to these kinds of problems. Perhaps we should encourage AI researchers to forget self-driving cars and focus on self-driving nations: a political intelligence that can steer us through dangerous times. When you consider the situation we have now, would robot overlords really be so scary? 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Still hanging

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Don’t shoot the messenger: are social media giants really “consciously failing” to tackle extremism?

MPs today accused social media companies of failing to combat terrorism, but just how accurate is this claim? 

Today’s home affairs committee report, which said that internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat extremism, was criticised by terrorism experts almost immediately.

“Blaming Facebook, Google or Twitter for this phenomenon is quite simplistic, and I'd even say misleading,” Professor Peter Neumann, an expert on radicalisation from Kings College London, told the BBC.

“Social media companies are doing a lot more now than they used to - no doubt because of public pressure,” he went on. The report, however, labels the 14 million videos Google have removed in the last two years, and the 125,000 accounts Twitter has suspended in the last one, a “drop in the ocean”.

It didn’t take long for the sites involved to refute the claims, which follow a 12-month inquiry on radicalisation. A Facebook spokesperson said they deal “swiftly and robustly with reports of terrorism-related content”, whilst YouTube said they take their role in combating the spread of extremism “very seriously”. This time last week, Twitter announced that they’d suspended 235,000 accounts for promoting terrorism in the last six months, which is incidentally after the committee stopped counting in February.

When it comes to numbers, it’s difficult to determine what is and isn’t enough. There is no magical number of Terrorists On The Internet that experts can compare the number of deletions to. But it’s also important to judge the companies’ efforts within the realm of what is actually possible.

“The argument is that because Facebook and Twitter are very good at taking down copyright claims they should be better at tackling extremism,” says Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

“But in those cases you are given a hashed file by the copyright holder and they say: ‘Find this file on your database and remove it please’. This is very different from extremism. You’re talking about complicated nuanced linguistic patterns each of which are usually unique, and are very hard for an algorithm to determine.”

Bartlett explains that a large team of people would have to work on building this algorithm by trawling through cases of extremist language, which, as Thangam Debonnaire learned this month, even humans can struggle to identify.  

“The problem is when you’re dealing with linguistic patterns even the best algorithms work at 70 per cent accuracy. You’d have so many false positives, and you’d end up needing to have another huge team of people that would be checking all of it. It’s such a much harder task than people think.”

Finding and deleting terrorist content is also only half of the battle. When it comes to videos and images, thousands of people could have downloaded them before they were deleted. During his research, Bartlett has also discovered that when one extremist account is deleted, another inevitably pops up in its place.

“Censorship is close to impossible,” he wrote in a Medium post in February. “I’ve been taking a look at how ISIL are using Twitter. I found one user name, @xcxcx162, who had no less than twenty-one versions of his name, all lined up and ready to use (@xcxcx1627; @xcxcx1628, @xcxcx1629, and so on).”

Beneath all this, there might be another, fundamental flaw in the report’s assumptions. Demos argue that there is no firm evidence that online material actually radicalises people, and that much of the material extremists view and share is often from mainstream news outlets.

But even if total censorship was possible, that doesn’t necessarily make it desirable. Bartlett argues that deleting extreme content would diminish our critical faculties, and that exposing people to it allows them to see for themselves that terrorists are “narcissistic, murderous, thuggish, irreligious brutes.” Complete censorship would also ruin social media for innocent people.

“All the big social media platforms operate on a very important principal, which is that they are not responsible for the content that is placed on their platforms,” he says. “It rests with the user because if they were legally responsible for everything that’s on their platform – and this is a legal ruling in the US – they would have to check every single thing before it was posted. Given that Facebook deals with billions of posts a day that would be the end of the entire social media infrastructure.

“That’s the kind of trade off we’d be talking about here. The benefits of those platforms are considerable and you’d be punishing a lot of innocent people.”

No one is denying that social media companies should do as much as they can to tackle terrorism. Bartlett thinks that platforms can do more to remove information under warrant or hand over data when the police require it, and making online policing 24/7 is an important development “because terrorists do not work 9 to 5”. At the end of the day, however, it’s important for the government to accept technological limitations.

“Censorship of the internet is only going to get harder and harder,” he says. “Our best hope is that people are critical and discerning and that is where I would like the effort to be.” 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.