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Rational Agents: the first bots that entrapped humans into cyberspace


The effect of the Iraq war had been very powerful. Not only did millions of people feel that they had been lied to over the weapons of mass destruction, but there was a deeper feeling that whatever they did or said had no effect. That despite the mass protests and the fears and the warnings, the war had happened anyway. Liberals, radicals and a whole new generation of young people retreated. They turned instead to another world that was free of this hypocrisy and the corruption of politics. They went into cyberspace.
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By now, cyberspace had become even more sophisticated and responsive to human interaction. The online world was full of algorithms that could analyse and predict human behaviour. The man behind much of this was a scientist called Judea Pearl. He is the godfather of modern Artificial Intelligence. Pearl’s breakthrough had been to use what were called Bayesian Belief Networks. They were systems that could predict behaviour, even when the information was incomplete. But to make the system work, Pearl and others had imported a model of human beings drawn from economics.

They created what were called Rational Agents, software that mimicked human beings but in a very simplified form. The model assumed that the agent would always act rationally in order to get what it wanted, nothing more. One of the early utopians of cyberspace, Jaron Lanier, warned of the implications of this. “The agent’s model of what you are interested in, will always be a cartoon. And in return, you will see a cartoon version of the world through the agent’s eyes.” And, he added, “It will never be clear who they are working for – you or someone else.

New technology began to allow people to upload millions of images and videos into cyberspace. And the web - which up to that point had seemed like an abstract otherworld - began to look and feel like the real world.

From videos of animals, personal moments of experience, extraordinary events, to horrific terror videos, more and more was uploaded. And in a strange, sad twist, the first terrorist beheading video that was posted online, was that of Judea Pearl's son, Daniel Pearl. He was a journalist for the Wall Street Journal and had been kidnapped by radical Islamists in Pakistan. They recorded was they said was his confession and then his killing.

This was a new world that the old systems of power found it very difficult to deal with. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the security agencies secretly collected data from millions of people online. One programme was called Optic Nerve*. It took stills from the webcam conversations of millions of people across the world, trying to spot terrorists planning another attack.

The programme did not discover a single terrorist, but it did discover something else. A top secret assessment said: “Unfortunately, there are issues with undesirable images within the data. It would appear that a surprising number of people are using webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person. Also, the fact that the software allows more than one person to view a webcam stream means that it appears to being used to broadcast pornography."

But, increasingly, people were using the internet in other ways - to present themselves as they wanted to be seen. The web drew people in because it was mesmerising. It was somewhere that you could explore and get lost, in any way you wanted. But behind the screen, like in a two-way mirror, the simplified agents were watching and predicting and guiding your hand on the mouse.

As the intelligent systems online gathered ever more data, new forms of guidance began to emerge. Social media created filters – complex algorithms that looked at what individuals liked – and then fed more of the same back to them. In the process, individuals began to move, without noticing, into bubbles that isolated them from enormous amounts of other information. They only heard and saw what they liked. And the news feeds increasingly excluded anything that might challenge people’s pre-existing beliefs.


From the documentary HyperNormalisation by Adam Curtis

* GCHQ’s 'Optic Nerve' programme, used to capture the personal images of millions of Yahoo webcam users. It suggests that there are no limits to what the intelligence agencies are ready to do. [fa.ev/enint]

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