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Why do we fight?

Speed read
  • New psychologically realistic AI agent is designed to mimic human religiosity
  • Theories in cognitive psychology used to model how people of different faiths interact
  • Humans are peaceful by nature but opposition to core beliefs can induce violence

Are people naturally violent? Or can factors such as religion cause xenophobic tension and anxiety between different groups, that may or may not lead to violence?

<strong>Peaceful by nature?</strong> Humans have a long history of behaving violently towards groups with opposing identity, as shown in this 13th century artwork.A new study using artificial intelligence (AI) may help us to better understand the causes of religious violence and to potentially control it. Researchers at the University of Oxford, Boston University, and The University of Agder have combined computer modelling and cognitive psychology to create an AI system able to mimic human religiosity.

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.

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.

Co-author Justin Lane says, “Religious violence is not our default behaviour – in fact it is pretty rare in our history.”

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 hopes that the results can be used to support governments in addressing and preventing social conflict and terrorism.

<strong>Troubling history.</strong> Researchers trained AI with cognitive models in the hopes of uncovering what motivates groups to violent action, such as the thirty-year conflict in Northern Ireland that claimed over 3,500 lives. Courtesy Fribbler <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en’>(CC BY-SA 3.0)</a>The Troubles in Northern Ireland are regarded as one of the most violent periods in Irish history. The conflict, involving the British army and various Republican and Loyalist paramilitary groups, spanned three decades, claimed the lives of approximately 3,500 people and saw a further 47,000 injured.

Although shorter, the 2002 Gujarat riots of India were equally devastating. The three-day period of inter-communal violence between Hindu and Muslim communities began when a train filled with Hindu pilgrims stopped in a predominantly Muslim town, and ended with the deaths of more than 2,000 people.

 “99% 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,” says Lane.

“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?”

The team used theories in cognitive psychology to mimic how a human being would naturally think and process information. The team programmed these rules for cognitive interaction within their AI to show how an individual's beliefs match with a group situation.

They did this by looking at how humans process information against their own personal experiences. They combined some AI models that have had positive experiences with people from other faiths and others that have had negative or neutral encounters.

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

<strong>80% harmony.</strong> The study found that even when core beliefs are challenged or identity threatened, the resulting anxiety only led to violence 20% of the time. This study is the first time multi-agent AI has been used to tackle the question of religious violence. Courtesy Helena Lopes/Unsplash.Within the simulated environments, 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, with 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 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 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% of the scenarios created—all of which were triggered by individuals going against the group's core beliefs and identity.

Some religions have a tendency to encourage extreme displays of devotion to a chosen faith. This can then take the form of violence against a group or individual of another faith, or someone who has broken away from the group.

While other research has tried to use traditional AI and machine learning approaches to understand religious violence, they have delivered mixed results. Biases against minority communities in machine learning continue to raise ethical issues. This paper marks the first time that multi-agent AI has been used to tackle the question.

Says Lane, “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. The root causes of things like religious violence rest in how our minds process the information that our world presents it.”

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Read the original article on the University of Oxford's site.

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