(Roughly) Daily

“It is impossible to work in information technology without also engaging in social engineering”*…


ai religion

… Using a separate model, Future of Religion and Secular Transitions (forest), the team found that people tend to secularize when four factors are present: existential security (you have enough money and food), personal freedom (you’re free to choose whether to believe or not), pluralism (you have a welcoming attitude to diversity), and education (you’ve got some training in the sciences and humanities). If even one of these factors is absent, the whole secularization process slows down. This, they believe, is why the U.S. is secularizing at a slower rate than Western and Northern Europe.

“The U.S. has found ways to limit the effects of education by keeping it local, and in private schools, anything can happen,” said [LeRon] 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.”

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.”

Shults told me, “I lose sleep at night on this. … It is social engineering. It just is—there’s no pretending like it’s not.” But he added that other groups, like Cambridge Analytica, are doing this kind of computational work, too. And various bad actors will do it without transparency or public accountability. “It’s going to be done. So not doing it is not the answer.” Instead, he and Wildman believe the answer is to do the work with transparency and simultaneously speak out about the ethical danger inherent in it.

“That’s why our work here is two-pronged: I’m operating as a modeler and as an ethicist,” Wildman said. “It’s the best I can do.”…

Artificial Intelligence Shows Why Atheism Is Unpopular“– and other tales from the trenches of social modeling– the learnings and the ethical questions they raise.

* Jaron Lanier


As we’re careful what we wish for, we might send elaborately-designed birthday greetings to a practitioner of another, older form of social engineering, Pierre Charles L’Enfant; he was born on this date in 1754.  A military and civil engineer, he became a city planner, most famously crafting the unique “radiant” layout for Washington, D.C.

210px-Pierre_Charles_L'Enfant source


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