Shiny blue brain

AI system unravels the root causes behind religious conflicts

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Religious conflicts could one day be defused with the help of artificial intelligence (AI) that can help us to better understand the causes of the violence and how to potentially control it.

The Oxford University researchers behind the collaborative study say it is one of the first to use psychologically realistic AI as opposed to machine learning.

It works by combining computer modelling and cognitive psychology to create an AI system able to mimic human religiosity.

The study is built around the question of whether people are naturally violent, or if factors such as religion can cause xenophobic tension and anxiety between different groups, that may or may not lead to violence.

The findings reveal that people are a peaceful species by nature. However, in a wide range of contexts they are willing to endorse violence – particularly when others go against the core beliefs which define their identity.

Although the research focuses on specific historic events, the findings can be applied to any occurrence of religious violence and used to understand the motivations behind it. Particularly events of radicalised Islam, when people’s patriotic identity conflicts with their religious one, e.g. the Boston bombing and London terror attacks. The team hope that the results can be used to support governments to address and prevent social conflict and terrorism.

Conducted by a cohort of researchers from universities including Oxford, Boston University and the University of Agder, Norway, the paper does not explicitly simulate violence but instead focuses on the conditions that enabled two specific periods of xenophobic social anxiety that then escalated to extreme physical violence.

Researcher Justin E Laned said: “Ninety-nine per cent of the general public are most familiar with AI that uses machine learning to automate human tasks like classifying something, such as tweets to be positive or negative etc, but our study uses something called multi-agent AI to create a psychologically realistic model of a human, for example how do they think, and, particularly, how do we identify with groups? Why would someone identify as Christian, Jewish or Muslim etc? Essentially, how do our personal beliefs align with how a group defines itself?”

To create these psychologically realistic AI agents, the team use theories in cognitive psychology to mimic how a human being would naturally think and process information.

The rules for cognitive interaction were coded within their AI programme, to show how an individual’s beliefs match up with a group situation.

To represent everyday society and how people of different faiths interact in the real world, they created a simulated environment and populated it with hundreds or thousands (or millions) of the human model agents. The only difference being that these ‘people’ all have slightly different variables – age, ethnicity etc.

The simulated environments themselves have a basic design. Individuals have a space that they exist in, but within this space there is a certain probability that they will interact with environmental hazards, such as natural disasters and disease, and, at some point, each other.

The findings revealed that the most common conditions that enable long periods of mutually escalating xenophobic tension occur when social hazards, such as out-group members who deny the group’s core beliefs or sacred values, overwhelm people to the point that they can no longer deal with them.

It is only when people’s core belief systems are challenged, or they feel that their commitment to their own beliefs is questioned, that anxiety and agitations occur. However, this anxiety only led to violence in 20 per cent of the scenarios created, all of which were triggered by people from either outside of the group or within going against the group’s core beliefs and identity.

“Ultimately, to use AI to study religion or culture we have to look at modelling human psychology because our psychology is the foundation for religion and culture, so the root causes of things like religious violence rest in how our minds process the information that our world presents,” Laned said.

Understanding the root cause of religious violence allows people to use the model to both contain and minimise these conflicts.

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