An experiment to see how input sources can affect artificial intelligence has created a digital psychopath named Norman. After exposing an otherwise standard AI to violent and depraved internet images, researchers at Stanford University found they’d produced a program that interprets the world as a starkly terrifying place full of murder and mayhem, completely devoid of empathy. Which prompts the question: If the worst of the internet can turn an AI into a psychopath, then what hope do parents have if their children stumble into these spaces? Because unlike an AI, our kids have a desire to belong and biases to be confirmed. And the monstrous internet is ready to take them in and feed their adolescent darkness.
In the experiment, the Stanford team sought to understand how biased input can affect an algorithm in the form of a run-of the-mill AI. To accomplish that task researchers set out to feed their AI the most violent and disturbing images they could find. Where did they turn? It wasn’t the dark web. It was what they referred to as the “darkest corners of Reddit,” the site that calls itself the “front page of the internet.”
After feeding the program a continuous stream of depraved internet sentiment and imagery from Reddit, researchers prompted the AI to interpret Rorschach inkblot tests other programs have described in banal and sometimes even sweet terms. What did Norman see in the ink splotches? A pregnant woman falling to her death, a man being shot dead, and another man being slaughtered in front of his screaming wife.
Yes, that’s disturbing. But what should be more disturbing is the understanding that these dark corners of Reddit do not exist just on Reddit — as reassuring as that might be. They are being curated and patronized by real, live people who feed each other horror and outrage on a daily basis. Is the suggestion here that the users behind vile subreddits are psychopaths? No. I wouldn’t make that assumptions. But that does not assuage my worries. Collectively monstrous is no better than individually monstrous and I know how fiercely boys often want to be part of a collective.
It’s not a difficult thought experiment to project my kids into a possible future where they become entranced by the extremes of the internet. When I was in high school, I was drawn to extremes too. But I didn’t have a portal that would immediately indulge my darkest curiosities. I’d have to rely on a friend of a friend who might have a copy of a Faces of Death video, or a book about serial killers, or a photocopied zine about depraved sex. There were natural barriers that allowed my empathy and disgust to recoup after bouts of awfulness.
Thank goodness I was on dial-up.
My kids aren’t and won’t be. They’ll find reassurances that their worst impulses are totally defensible at the speed of light. And, if all goes poorly, they will be fed and feed others ultra-violent, racist, misogynist memes that promote and justify poisonous thinking. Rather than avoiding the monster under their bed, they’ll wind up inviting him under the sheets to cuddle.
And, no, unfortunately, this isn’t some abstract alarmist fantasy. All one needs to do is look at the “Incel” (short for involuntarily celibate) internet subculture and their fathomless hate, misogyny, and misanthropy. One of their ranks took the incel message so seriously that he went on a killing spree, becoming a martyr for the cause. And the incels aren’t the only subculture out there willing to accept my kids and capitalize on the angst common to the young. These groups can be found on messages boards and microblog sites across the internet from 4Chan to Tumblr. And they aren’t particularly hard to find.
Right now, my kids’ brains are like that AI program just waiting for input. I am largely responsible for guiding that input because they’re not old enough to explore the internet on their own. As such, I keep them from the darkness and the monsters. But at some point, it will become harder for me to protect them. At some point, I will have to tell them that the monsters are real, and hope my lessons keep them from the darkest corners of the digital world.