Using AI to explain religious conflict


Multidisciplinary team suggests that artificial intelligence might predict when disagreement tips over into violence. Nick Carne reports.


Decades of conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland is helping scientists unravel the causes of religious violence.

Decades of conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland is helping scientists unravel the causes of religious violence.

Paul Faith/PA Images via Getty Images

Can artificial intelligence help us explain why humans do what they do?

An international team of cognitive, computer and social scientists has taken tentative steps in this direction by creating a model which uses “psychologically realistic AI” to try to better understand the causes of religious violence and the potential to control it.

In simple terms, they combined computer modelling and cognitive psychology to create a multi-agent AI system they say can mimic human religiosity, allowing them to explore the conditions, triggers and patterns for escalating tensions and clashes.

The study was 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 lead to violence.

A team led by Justin Lane from Oxford University in the UK used two real-life examples of “xenophobic social anxiety” that led to extreme physical violence – the 30-year “Troubles” in North Ireland and the three-day Gujurat riots in India in 2002.

However, the researchers say the findings can be applied to any occurrence of religious violence, particularly events of radicalised Islam, when people's patriotic identity conflicts with their religious one.

Those findings, reported in The Journal for Artificial Societies and Social Stimulation, suggest that humans are a peaceful species by nature but are willing to endorse violence in a wide range of contexts, particularly when others go against the core beliefs which define their identity.

They reveal that the most common conditions that enable long periods of mutually escalating xenophobic tension occur when social hazards, such as outgroup 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 core belief systems are challenged, the researchers suggest, 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% of the scenarios created – all of which were triggered by people going against the group's core beliefs and identity.

The study brought together researchers from the NORCE Center for Modeling Social Systems and the University of Agder in Norway, Oxford University, and Boston University, Tufts University and the Virginia Modeling, Analysis, and Simulation Centre in the US.

Lane says previous attempts to use traditional AI and machine learning to understand religious violence had delivered mixed results, including ethical issues regarding biases against minority communities. The new work was the first time multi-agent AI has been used to tackle the question and create psychologically realistic computer models.

“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 it,” he says.

  1. http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/21/4/7.html
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