55. Influence at Machine Speed: The Coming of AI-Powered Propaganda

[Editor’s Note: Mad Scientist Laboratory is pleased to present the following guest blog post by MAJ Chris Telley, U.S. Army, assigned to the Naval Postgraduate School, addressing how Artificial Intelligence (AI) must be understood as an Information Operations (IO) tool if U.S. defense professionals are to develop effective countermeasures and ensure our resilience to its employment by potential adversaries.]

AI-enabled IO present a more pressing strategic threat than the physical hazards of slaughter-bots or even algorithmically-escalated nuclear war. IO are efforts to “influence, disrupt, corrupt, or usurp the decision-making of adversaries and potential adversaries;” here, we’re talking about using AI to do so. AI-guided IO tools can empathize with an audience to say anything, in any way needed, to change the perceptions that drive those physical weapons. Future IO systems will be able to individually monitor and affect tens of thousands of people at once. Defense professionals must understand the fundamental influence potential of these technologies if they are to drive security institutions to counter malign AI use in the information environment.

Source: Peter Adamis / Abalinx.com

Programmatic marketing, using consumer’s data habits to drive real time automated bidding on personalized advertising, has been used for a few years now. Cambridge Analytica’s Facebook targeting made international headlines using similar techniques, but digital electioneering is just the tip of the iceberg. An AI trained with data from users’ social media accounts, economic media interactions (Uber, Applepay, etc.), and their devices’ positional data can infer predictive knowledge of its targets. With that knowledge, emerging tools — like Replika — can truly befriend a person, allowing it to train that individual, for good or ill.

Source: Getty Creative

Substantive feedback is required to train an individual’s response; humans tend to respond best to content and feedback with which they agree. That content can be algorithmically mass produced. For years, Narrative Science tools have helped writers create sports stories and stock summaries, but it’s just as easy to use them to create disinformation. That’s just text, though; today, the AI can create fake video. A recent warning, ostensibly from former President Obama, provides an entertaining yet frightening demonstration of how Deepfakes will challenge our presumptions about truth in the coming years. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is funding a project this summer to determine whether AI-generated Deepfakes will become impossible to distinguish from the real thing, even using other AI systems.

Given that malign actors can now employ AI to lieat machine speed,” they still have to get the story to an audience. Russian bot armies continue to make headlines doing this very thing. The New York Times maintains about a dozen Twitter feeds and produces around 300 tweets a day, but Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) regularly puts out 25,000 tweets in the same twenty-four hours. The IRA’s bots are really just low-tech curators; they collect, interpret, and display desired information to promote the Kremlin’s narratives.

Source: Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images

Next-generation bot armies will employ far faster computing techniques and profit from an order of magnitude greater network speed when 5G services are fielded. If “Repetition is a key tenet of IO execution,” then this machine gun-like ability to fire information at an audience will, with empathetic precision and custom content, provide the means to change a decisive audience’s very reality. No breakthrough science is needed, no bureaucratic project office required. These pieces are already there, waiting for an adversary to put them together.

The DoD is looking at AI but remains focused on image classification and swarming quadcopters while ignoring the convergent possibilities of predictive audience understanding, tailored content production, and massive scale dissemination. What little digital IO we’ve done, sometimes called social media “WebOps,” has been contractor heavy and prone to naïve missteps. However, groups like USSOCOM’s SOFWERX and the students at the Naval Postgraduate School are advancing the state of our art. At NPS, future senior leaders are working on AI, now. A half-dozen of the school’s departments have stood up classes and events specifically aimed at operationalizing advanced computing. The young defense professionals currently working on AI should grapple with emerging influence tools and form the foundation of the DoD’s future institutional capabilities.

MAJ Chris Telley is an Army information operations officer assigned to the Naval Postgraduate School. His assignments have included theater engagement at U.S. Army Japan and advanced technology integration with the U.S. Air Force. Chris commanded in Afghanistan and served in Iraq as a United States Marine. He tweets at @chris_telley.

This blog post represents the opinions of the author and do not reflect the position of the Army or the United States Government.

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