Artificial intelligence (AI) opens up a wonderful world of immense possibilities. These prospects include, for example, helping to save the Amazon by preventing deforestation; automation and job creation through reskilling; mitigating and managing climate change by measuring emissions; stimulate the discovery of new drugs; countering terrorism and transforming national security; and improving the criminal justice system and reducing crime rates.
AI-based autonomous vehicles – cars, trucks, buses and drone delivery systems – are already impacting our lives. Using AI, metropolitan areas could be transformed into smart cities for service delivery, environmental planning, energy use, emergency management and much more.
These are some of the known and knowable problems that applications of AI algorithms can solve with greater efficiency. Can AI predict the unthinkable, what the late Donald Rumsfeld called the unknown unknowns?
Earlier this year The Washington Post reported that after the horrific attack on the Capitol on January 6, data scientists working at the University of Central Florida’s CoupCast AI program began focusing on “unrest prediction.” They are convinced that artificial intelligence algorithms could be applied to predict political violence in America.
So far, according to the report, CoupCast has focused on electoral violence and coups in developing countries. The United States, with its long democratic traditions, seemed far from such threats, but the January 6 assault challenged that sense of American exceptionalism.
CoupCast experts believe that by “designing an AI model that can quantify variables – a country’s democratic history, democratic ‘rollback’, economic fluctuations, levels of ‘social trust’, transportation disruptions, weather volatility and more – the art of predicting political violence may be more scientific than ever.
Machine-learning AI models can handle massive amounts of social, political and economic data that could issue warnings about emerging political threats, data scientists said. The building blocks of political violence are now well known for a populist leader to use to stir up a mob.
Besides CoupCast, several other groups are using AI and a blended approach to study and predict crises around the world; and now they are focusing their attention on the domestic market. As the Job reported, the Pentagon, CIA, and State Department have also moved in this direction by using AI to forecast geopolitical risks, particularly with China. For example, the Global Information Dominance experiment uses AI “trained on past global conflicts” to predict where new ones might occur.
AI has the potential not only for early warnings (upcoming events cast their shadows before), but more importantly, for early awareness of events that have no antecedents, the unknown unknowns, the seemingly unknowable.
Technological innovations mutate and creep into other areas. A new world of sensory environment in which nothing would remain incommunicado is being born.
Based on converging sensors and smart technologies, law enforcement and counter-terrorism experts are dealing with terrorism, among other issues, in entirely different and perhaps more effective ways. The interior of future aircraft would be equipped with sensors that record and transmit any unusual activity to a monitoring and control center for preventive action.
Scientists from QinetiQ, a commercial subsidiary of the UK Ministry of Defence, have developed a working sensor-integrated model of an aircraft seat capable of capturing signals of physiological changes in a passenger and relaying the information to a cockpit monitor. The signals could allow the crew to analyze whether the person is a terrorist or someone suffering from deep vein thrombosis, for example.
The smart seat would eventually be able to register signs of emotional stress felt by a passenger during the flight. Hidden seat sensors would provide unobtrusive in-flight surveillance and could provide actionable intelligence on activities, including the health status of in-flight passengers. More importantly, the information would enable air marshals to take pre-emptive action in case there was a danger that terrorists were planning to blow up or hijack the plane. The cockpit would become an anti-terrorist cell.
Technologies are rarely self-sufficient in the age of digital networks. They have recombination potential and tend to converge and fuse with others to form new technologies, which could be used in ways the original inventors never imagined. For example, if you combine QinetiQ’s smart seat technology with “sympathetic haptics” technology developed a few years ago at the University at Buffalo, New York’s virtual reality lab, you might see how feelings of stress can be transmitted and evaluated accurately.
If a suicide bomber becomes agitated or a person has a heart attack, the physical movements that accompany stress and distress would be relayed to the cockpit monitor as well as Homeland Security monitors. The two converging technologies would turn an airplane seat into a virtual reality surveillance system that silently records every physical movement of the occupant for instant analysis.
The radicalization of American politics that led to the storming of the Capitol on January 6 was driven by many complex sociopolitical factors. But he was aided by online mobilization tactics like tweets, memes and viral content to spread disinformation and promote extremist ideology. The challenge is whether artificial intelligence can combat misinformation and conspiracy theories before they lead to catastrophic actions in real life.
Narain Batra is the author of The First Freedoms and America’s Culture of Innovation, and the most recent, India In A New Key. He lives in Hartford.