Saturday, June 11, 2022

A Networked Peace

"To live effectively is to live with adequate information."
Norbert Weiner had maintained that nature has an inherent tendency to degrade the organized. The organism, according to him, is opposed to death and disintegration "as message is to noise" - postulating a perpetual conflict between the self-organising and the organised. This is evident everywhere. Take, for example, the rules based world order. The thing about complex adaptive systems is that given their tendencies towards self-organisation, they generally find a way to work around any and all rules. The former then has to reassert itself to turn the self-organising into the organised, as long as it can. Thus the first secretary general of NATO had defined peace as keeping the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down - and the secretary general of NATO today would continue to insist upon the same peace. But undoubtedly in an arena staged upon competing networks, one man's peace is bound to become another's war and vice versa.    
Notwithstanding, how do we ensure that in this struggle between the self-organising and the organised, a structure evolves and not destructs. Mr. Weiner had suggested that since all organisations are held together by communication, effective communication engineering is the key to steering society in a purposeful direction. Communication effects control. That is indeed the most fundamental insight of cybernetics, whose father understood society only through the study of the messages and communication facilities which belong to it. Thus the way to create a social structure is to restrict and regulate the information flows in that society, to destroy that structure is to destroy or divert those information flows, i.e. create new information flows. That is what the internet did too.
Enter digital networks and artificial agents. The internet hasn't lived upto the expectations of the founders of computing. JCR Licklider, for example, had prophesied that in the information age, unemployment would disappear from the face of the earth because of the opportunities offered by "an infinite crescendo of on-line interactive debugging". Seems unlikely to happen. A lot of the computing giants couldn't foresee the future that their dream machine, AI, would bring aboard while the humanity, globally and gently, sleepwalks into an era of perpetual warring and a painful transformation of the nation-state.
In 2011, a startup named Pacific Social Architecting Corporation, figured if they could change these information flows using online socialbots, they'd be able to alter the social architecture of a community. They tried and while their experiments met with some success, their startup did not. Almost two decades later, researchers writing for Nature Communications describe the use of similar software agents to produce "information gerrymandering" - forcing an asymmetric assortment of influence over an unsuspecting population and creating the majority illusion for specific nodes. Even in their highly-cited paper on social botnets, Yazan Boshmaf and others had suggested early on that each social bot in an online social network is going to be capable of two kinds of influence operations - those related to social interaction, and those related to the social structure. And we are only now witnessing the true meaning of that. To think about it, using networks of bots to create a very elaborate deception, even military deception, looks fairly doable with present developments in natural language and image processing. Unsurprisingly, some researchers did gone ahead and demonstrated the use of a guided social botnet to infiltrate and cultivate specific employees of targeted organisations(!).
Since communication effects control, the problem of Command and Control (C2) of operating such social machines becomes a problem of architecting a resilient and credible flow of information to effect specific organisational behaviours. The older methods of botnet command and control are no longer even suitable in this environment, as the use of social networks inevitable brings in a P2P architecture (i.e. each software agent can send encrypted commands to the rest of the network). We are thus seeing some very interesting C2 designs when it comes to bot deployments - from the use of smart contracts and blockchain to implement the C2 to embedding bot commands into Bitcoin transactions, we seem to be headed for interesting times in the cyberspace. To anyone still skeptical, do checkout this report on an IoT botnet that not just hacks your networked devices but also creates and operates socialbots using that infrastructure, even including a Machine Learning component that can be turned on or off depending upon the human users' responses on social media platforms.
Other than coordinating the bot network, identifying and prioritising the human users to reach using bots is also another challenge. These days, digital social networks enable a large number of unintended users to join an unfolding event i.e. the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian conflict. To those having to watch random networks form and dissolve from the existing scale free asymmetric networks of our modern human existence, following things must be highlighted about the human network to manipulate this "network-centric" environment:  
     -Which nodes have the decision rights?
     -What nodal decision rights can be accessed using software agents?
     -What is the pattern of interaction between these and other nodes?
     -What kind of inflow-outflow of information emerges from these networks? 

Coming back to the 1992 social architecting experiment, a key question that arises is whether such strategic use of software agent networks can overturn the importance of the existing key nodes in the human digital networks today? The key nodes are the information junctions, a kind of intelligence device within the network. Being at the junction, these nodes have power to regulate information flows, directly affecting a lot of other nodes, which also gives these a disproportionate amount of power over the rest of the network. It must be noted here how the information domain comes into a very intimate embrace with the cognitive and the political domains.

The original software robot was designed to provide an integrated and expressive interface to the internet as well as to change its behavior and choice of actions in response to transient system conditions. A coordinating network of such programs acting socially brings to table an important non-human agency in human affairs. Since computers today "record, relay, represent and inform our responses" to almost all political-military-economic conflicts as they unfold - today's digital networks potentially enable much coercive and destructive potential in the hands of robots. Our digital societies, as well as the their dominant military-industrial-media networks, both face the everyday dangers of interconnectivity i.e. networked terrorism, recurrent misinformation cascades, and computer/biological viruses to name a few. As Buddha used to say, everything is interconnected and life is suffering. In retrospect, it is a tribute to Turing that “bot or not” is turning into one of the defining questions of our hyper-connected age as the animal and the machine networks slowly renegotiate the structure of a new peace.

P.S. Credits to Scott Wolcott for the inspiration.

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