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AI Has a (Wonderful) Plan for Your Life

Tech-savvy religion scholars play with reshaping society

 Computer models featuring thousands of virtual people or “agents” are tested in projects such as the Templeton-funded Modeling Religion Project and its spinoffs, with the idea of advising policymakers in various countries s to what policies to adopt so as the shape, steer, and guide the population.

Sigal Samuel describes some of them at The Atlantic, including Forecasting Religiosity and Existential Security with an Agent-Based Model, whose proponents ask

“Why aren’t there more atheists? Why is America secularizing at a slower rate than Western Europe? Which conditions would speed up the process of secularization—or, conversely, make a population more religious?”

One collaborator suggests by way of answer to the first question,

“The U.S. has found ways to limit the effects of education by keeping it local, and in private schools, anything can happen,” said Shults’s collaborator, Wesley Wildman, a professor of philosophy and ethics at Boston University. “Lately, there’s been encouragement from the highest levels of government to take a less than welcoming cultural attitude to pluralism. These are forms of resistance to secularization.”

The modeling team sets great store by the claimed accuracy of the models and the knowledge they produce. But already a person who lives in North America would sense something amiss… “Keeping it local” may well mean, in a roundabout way, that the First Amendment would prevent the  federal government from using the schools overtly as a means of producing atheists. But what does that really tell us about the commitments of the U.S. population?

The team is pessimistic overall about getting politicians on side. It hopes to persuade policy analysts to convince the politicians to adopt the policies their model suggests instead. Wildman predicts, “We’re going to get them in the end.” Perhaps, but politicians must deal with voters as well as policy analysts and there are generally more of the latter out there.

But that’s probably not the only reason the model society approach isn’t thriving. Consider:

When you build a model, you can accidentally produce recommendations that you weren’t intending. Years ago, Wildman built a model to figure out what makes some extremist groups survive and thrive while others disintegrate. It turned out one of the most important factors is a highly charismatic leader who personally practices what he preaches. “This immediately implied an assassination criterion,” he said. “It’s basically, leave the groups alone when the leaders are less consistent, [but] kill the leaders of groups that have those specific qualities. It was a shock to discover this dropping out of the model. I feel deeply uncomfortable that one of my models accidentally produced a criterion for killing religious leaders.”

The results of that model have been published, so it may already have informed military action. “Is this type of thing being used to figure out criteria for drone killings? I don’t know, because there’s this giant wall between the secret research in the U.S. and the non-secret side,” Wildman said. “I’ve come to assume that on the secret side they’ve pretty much already thought of everything we’ve thought of, because they’ve got more money and are more focused on those issues. … But it could be that this model actually took them there. That’s a serious ethical conundrum.” Sigal Samuel, “Artificial Intelligence Shows Why Atheism Is Unpopular” at The Atlantic

If this is the best that the model can come up with, two things may safely be said: 1) One does not need a virtual model to rate the chances as to whether an assassination might destroy a given group and 2) the actual results vary dramatically and often unpredictably, as the history of the world’s largest religion, Christianity, attests.

What’s perhaps most informative is the investment that some religion scholars have in using AI to institute top-down social planning.

See also: AI can mean ultimate Big Surveillance: That’s what we should really worry about. And the personalities behind these surveillance efforts are not advanced artificial entities but the usual suspects, armed with the usual good intentions.

AI Has a (Wonderful) Plan for Your Life