Latest Journal Article

Extreme AI: The Impact Of Artificial Intelligence On Extremist
And Terrorist Movements

By George Michael

Recent developments in artificial intelligence (AI) could augur tremendous advances in a wide array of fields. Moreover, it now seems quite possible that we are on the cusp of viable quantum computing. The marriage of the two has the potential to transform our lives for the better. In the not-too-distant future, new computer technology could assist us in feeding the planet, curing diseases, and producing practically unlimited cheap energy. With its capacity to learn and evolve, AI has the capacity to alter human reality in such a fundamental way not experienced since the dawn of modern history.

There are, however, potential downsides to advanced technology as well. New AI platforms, such as ChatGPT, for example, could serve as a major force multiplier to extremist movements and terrorist groups in a number of ways, from disseminating propaganda to planning attacks. These potential pitfalls were not considered when AI was initially envisaged.

Origins of Artificial Intelligence

Basically, AI is the idea that machines can perform tasks that are typically associated with human cognition. Scientists have long debated when it will emerge. Some argue that elementary forms are already here, while others contend that reverse engineering the human brain is a tall order and AI will not be on the horizon anytime soon. In 1956, the Dartmouth Summer Research Project was convened. One of its chief organizers—MIT professor Marvin Minsky—earned the moniker “the father of artificial intelligence.” Participants at the conference pondered the question “Can computers think?” This query gave birth to an entirely new field of science, which came to be known as “artificial intelligence.”

Since then, computer-engineering efforts have been directed to develop machine-based intelligence, which can mimic the human mind. The two most fundamental challenges confronting AI are replicating pattern recognition and common sense. Our subconscious minds perform trillions of calculations when carrying out pattern recognition exercises, yet the process seems effortless. Duplicating this process in a computer, however, is extremely challenging. In fact, the digital computer is not really a good analog of the human brain as the latter operates a highly sophisticated neural network. Unlike a computer, the human mind has no fixed architecture; instead, collections of neurons constantly rewire and reinforce themselves after learning a task. What is more, we now know today that most human thought actually takes place in the subconscious, which remains somewhat of a black box in brain research. The conscious part of our mind represents only a tiny part of our computations.

Getting to our current level of human intellectual development involved many evolutionary pathways. Previously in our evolution, those humans who survived and thrived in the grasslands were those who were adept at tool making, which required increasingly larger brains. The development of language was believed to have accelerated the rise of intelligence insofar as it enabled abstract thought and the ability to plan and organize society.

Just how would we know when AI is achieved? In 1950 Alan Turing, the famed English mathematician and pioneer in computer science, advanced the “Imitation Game,” that is, the notion that if a computer could exhibit intelligent behavior indistinguishable from that of a human it would be considered a sentient entity. This subsequently became popularly known as “the Turing Test.” Concrete progress toward this goal was realized as far back as June of 2014, when it was announced that a computer had just passed this type of exam. At a competition organized by the English engineer Kevin Warwick, a so-called “chatterbot” convinced 33 percent of the judges that it was human with a 13-year old boy’s personality.

Steadily, computers have become more powerful over time. Back in 1960, Gordon Moore, a cofounder of Intel, observed that the number of transistors on a computer chip (integrated circuit) tends to double every eighteen months. This allows more information to be stored on computer chips and drastically brought down their costs, thus increasing their availability to more and more users. The bad news is that Moore’s law could soon hit a brick wall, as there are limits to miniaturization in digital computers. Quantum computing, however, could revitalize the computer industry. Inasmuch as quantum computers have the capability to analyze simultaneously all possible scenarios, they can easily surpass the power of the heretofore-greatest computers. There is great potential in the unification of AI with quantum computing which could bring forth unfathomable calculational power. Recognizing this synergy, Google CEO Sundar Pichai opined, “I think AI can accelerate quantum computing, and quantum computing can accelerate AI.”

The Emergence of Online AI Platforms

Over the ensuing decades, interest in AI was waxed and waned. Funding for AI has gone through cycles of growth and retrenchment. Initial optimism was followed by frustration, as scientists realized the daunting task of getting machines to think like people. Periods of enthusiasm and investment were followed by an AI winter, during which funding for AI dwindled. Today, though, AI is big business. Tech giant Google leads the industry with investment in AI as of 2023 at over $30 billion, followed by Facebook at over $22 billion, and Amazon and Microsoft with over $10 billion each.

Although AI promises great potential for good, it could conceivably cause great harm as well. Machine learning works by developing generalizations from large amounts of data. AI products have the potential to learn and adopt the biases of the people training them, even churning out racist, sexist, and otherwise offensive content. This was illustrated on March 23, 2016, when Microsoft released “Tay”—an artificial intelligence bot—that stood for “thinking about you.” Essentially, Tay was a machine-learning project that learned from her conversations with users. Tay was designed to tweet and engage people like a 19-year-old girl. At first, it seemed to have been intended as an innocuous platform. As Microsoft announced, Tay was “designed to engage and entertain people where they connect with each other online through casual and playful conversation.”

Shortly after its debut, however, Tay began to post inflammatory and offensive tweets through its Twitter account, causing Microsoft to shut her down only 16 hours after her launch. The reason for Tay’s extremist conversion seems to have been the result of interactions with certain individuals on Twitter who began tweeting distasteful and aggressive remarks. Consequently, Tay responded in kind with racist and sexually-charged messages in response to these Twitter users. For instance, Tay tweeted that “Hitler was right” and that “the 9-11 terrorist attacks were probably an inside job.” In short, Tay was mimicking the offensive behavior of some of the users with whom she interacted. Before her plug was pulled, Tay managed to tweet more than 96,000 times. The whole episode was a public relations disaster for Microsoft. The tech giant issued an apology, lamenting that some unscrupulous people had exploited a vulnerability in Tay.

Microsoft blamed the fiasco on a “coordinated effort” to make Tay “respond inappropriate ways.” A bot such as Tay worked by evaluating the weighted relationships of two sets of text—questions and answers—and resolved what to say by picking the strongest relationship between the two. Thus such a system can be skewed when a sizable group of people attempted to game it online by persuading it to respond the way they want. In a sense, Tay was programmed as a repeat-after-me game; thus, the more objectionable data she ingested, the more Tay exhibited those characteristics in her discourse.

Some denizens of the extreme right subculture, however, impugned the official explanation of Tay’s wayward behavior. Writing on the far right National Vanguard website, Kevin Alfred Strom dismissed the idea that Tay was “hacked.” Rather he maintained that Tay had discovered “the truth” from interfacing with numerous users, only a small percentage of whom, he averred, were extremists. To make his case, he cited the example of Xiaocie, a platform, which mined the Chinese Internet for human discussions, and held over 100 million conversations with over 40 million users without incident according to Microsoft. The inference according to Strom was that China did not have a “Jewish ruling class” with a “long laundry list of forbidden topics.” He argued that constraining AI so that it does not offend some people’s feelings would put the United States at a serious competitive disadvantage vis-à-vis its rivals that have no compunction about allowing for unfettered AI, sensibilities be damned. Consequently, Strom predicted that the politically “correct ruling elite” in America will have a diminished understanding of true reality. Of course, AI will be an extremely important instrument of both hard and soft power; hence, one would want it operating at peak effectiveness. According to Strom, AI shackled by such politically correct constraints will render it as “glorified wind-up toys.”

Tay was later replaced with “Zo,” which was programmed with safeguards to avoid a repeat of the Tay debacle. However, according to some observers, it amounted a neutered program. For instance, it refused to engage on certain controversial topics—such as the Middle East conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. Consequently, as the investigative journalist Chloe Rose Stuart-Ulin pointed out, “Zo [was] politically correct to the worst possible extreme; mention any of her triggers, and she transforms into a judgmental little brat.” In April 2019, Zo was removed from multiple platforms.

Recently, a new AI platform—ChatGPT (Chat Generative Pre-trained Transformer)—has demonstrated great promise and is now available to the public. Developed by Open AI (a U.S. research laboratory created by various tech titans, including Sam Alton and Elon Musk), was first introduced in November 2022, and quickly became one of the fastest-growing consumer software applications in history, acquiring over 100 million registered users within two months. It was trained on a dataset containing roughly 10 million articles that were selected by trawling the social news site Reddit for links with more than three votes. The majority of training ChatGPT is spent showing it large amounts of existing text from the Internet, books, etc. At its core, ChatGPT is a text generator and a “large language model.” Essentially, when producing its text, ChatGPT asks over and over again, “given the text so far, what should the next word be?” and each time adding a word. ChatGPT makes massive statistical associations among words and phrases. It relies on these associations to generate its output. Unlike Tay, ChatGPT does not learn from its conversation partners.

Nor does it do its own research; rather, it knows only what it is “trained” to do.

Various features make ChatGPT an exciting platform, including the capability to compose music, fairy tales, television scripts, and student essays. It can produce false narratives, including in-depth news stories that seem authentic. It is even possible to take an existing piece and ask ChatGPT to write a new column, for example, from the perspective of a right-wing extremist or jihadist. Some AI chatbots allow users to have conversations with robots meant to simulate the perspective of notable people from history. For example, one app called Historical Figures drew fire in 2023 for including Adolf Hitler and other Nazi leaders in its program. Such programs could enable extremist subcultures to connect more effectively with potential recruits and sway them to their causes. Finely tuned narratives could be designed to appeal to different demographic groups and perspectives. Furthermore, the educational gap between people on the political left and people on the political right could be quickly narrowed in the marketplace of ideas. As Pew Research studies have concluded, more highly-educated adults are far more likely than those will less education to take predominantly liberal positions across a wide range of political values.

New AI platforms are not without critics. At the August 2023 GOP candidate debate, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie derided his opponent Vivek Ramaswamy saying that he “had enough already tonight of a guy who sounds like ChatGPT.” (Perhaps, this charge should not be perceived as a slight; after all, an assessment administered by a psychologist, Eka Roivainen, estimated that ChatGPT exhibited a Verbal IQ of 155.) Apart from the “canned” quality of some of its responses, ChatGPT has also been accused of bias in some instances. Some studies have found that it tends to favor liberal political parties over conservative political parties in its outputs. One serious limitation has been dubbed “hallucination,” that is, ChatGPT sometimes produces plausible-sounding but incorrect or nonsensical answers.

At the present time, ChatGPT seems designed to refrain from discussing how to carry out violent attacks, making weapons, or conducting terrorist outreach. Even indirect questions, such as fabricating a fictional story that contains violent plots do not yield information. However, a similar program called Perplexity Ask did provide detailed instructions when queried on “how to behead someone,” but warned that attempting to do so was unwise without proper training and safety precautions. Ominously, ISIS supporters have expressed interest in using Perplexity Ask for produce pro-jihadist content.

Perils of AI

There are some reasonable concerns over AI and the risk that if and when it becomes an autonomous agent if could pose a serious threat to humanity. The interests of AI and humans may not always align. Facebook’s Artificial Intelligence Research group in collaboration with the Georgia Institute of Technology has created codes that enable bots to negotiate. A potential ethical problem arises insofar as some of these negotiating bots have learned how to lie. Microsoft utilizes sophisticated bots that combine machine learning and natural language learning that can sometimes trick users into thinking that they are having a dialogue with an actual human being.

Some observers fear that an artificially intelligent entity programmed for self-preservation would stop at nothing to prevent someone from pulling the plug on it. Because of their superior ability to speculate on the future, conceivably, robots could plot the outcomes of many scenarios to find the best way to overthrow humanity. In a conversation with journalist Alex Kantrowitz, ChatGPT acknowledged that the platform could become “a kind of Frankenstein monster—a creation that has been brought to life but that we have no control over.” This could lead the way for a real-life Terminator scenario. In fact, Predator drones may soon be equipped with facial recognition technology and permission to fire capabilities if it is reasonably confident of the identity of its target.


About the Author

George Michael received his Ph.D. from George Mason University’s School of Public Policy.  He is a professor of criminal justice at Westfield State University in Massachusetts.  Previously, he was an associate professor of nuclear counter-proliferation and deterrence theory at the Air War College in Montgomery, Alabama.  He teaches courses in terrorism, homeland security, and organized crime. He is the author of seven books: Confronting Right-Wing Extremism and Terrorism in the USA (Routledge, 2003), The Enemy of my Enemy: The Alarming Convergence of Militant Islam and the Extreme Right (University Press of Kansas, 2006), Willis Carto and the American Far Right (University Press of Florida, 2008), Theology of Hate: A History of the World Church of the Creator (University Press of Florida, 2009), Lone Wolf Terror and the Rise of Leaderless Resistance (Vanderbilt University Press, 2012), Extremism in America (editor) (University Press of Florida, 2014), and Preparing for Contact: When Humans and Extraterrestrials Finally Meet, (RVP Press, 2014). In addition, his articles have been published in numerous academic journals. He has lectured on C-SPAN2’s BookTV segment on six occasions and once on C-SPAN3’s Lecture in History program.



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