Artificial intelligence can't solve online extremism issue, experts tell House panel

Artificial intelligence can't solve online extremism issue, experts tell House panel
© Stefani Reynolds

A group of experts on Tuesday warned a House panel that artificial intelligence is not capable of sweeping up the full breadth of online extremist content — in particular posts from white supremacists.

At a House Homeland Security subcommittee hearing, lawmakers cast doubt on claims from top tech companies that artificial intelligence, or AI, will one day be able to detect and take down terrorist and extremist content without any human moderation.

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Rep. Max RoseMax RoseNew York Democrat pens op-ed on why he opposes impeaching Trump New York college student detained in Russia for possession of medical marijuana Assault weapons ban picks up steam in Congress MORE (D-N.Y.), the chairman of counterterrorism subcommittee holding the hearing, said he is fed up with responses from companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook about their failure to take down extremist posts and profiles, calling it "wanton disregard for national security obligations."

"We are hearing the same thing from social media companies, and that is, 'AI’s got this, it’s only gonna get better,' " Rose said during his opening remarks. "Nonetheless ... we have seen egregious problems." 

"We’ve been looking at this problem for months now," he continued. "We’ve been approached by the social media companies with this libertarian, technocratic elitism that’s highly, highly disturbing and it centers around the claim that AI can accomplish everything."

The lineup of experts, including Facebook's former chief security officer and current Stanford academic Alex Stamos, agreed that AI is not ready to take on the complicated issues of terrorist content — and raised questions over whether it ever will be able to.

Stamos said the "world’s best machine learning resembles a crowd of millions of preschoolers." 

"No number of preschoolers could get together to build the Taj Mahal," he explained.  

He also raised concerns about the variety of fringe platforms, such as 8chan and Gab, that seek to host white supremacist groups and ideologies.

"These white supremacist groups have online hosts who are happy to host them," Stamos said. "That is not true for the Islamic state."

The House Homeland Security Committee has kicked its investigation of online extremist content into high gear over the past several months, following the livestreamed and viral mass shooting of worshippers in a Christchurch, New Zealand, mosque.

The incident, which left platforms scrambling to take down millions of copies of the video, has sparked questions from lawmakers over how seriously the platforms treat acts of white supremacy.

Representatives with Facebook, Google and Twitter are slated to testify before the full House Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday about their efforts to counter online terrorist content and misinformation.

Top tech companies, including Facebook, have claimed that their AI systems are already successfully detecting a huge swath of terrorist and extremist content. But experts at the hearing said those claims are often overblown.

"Context is vitally important and context can often be hard for algorithms to detect," Ben Buchanan, an assistant teaching professor at Georgetown University, said.

It is often difficult for artificial intelligence systems to distinguish between educational videos about atrocities and content that is promoting those acts of violence.

After the hearing on Tuesday, House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonHillicon Valley: 8chan owner defends platform before Congress | Facebook launches dating feature | New York City sues T-Mobile | Top NSA cyber official names ransomware as 2020 threat | Blue Dog Dems urge action on election security 8chan owner defends platform in testimony before Congress The Hill's Morning Report - US coastline readies for Hurricane Dorian to make landfall MORE (D-Miss.) told reporters that the committee is currently in the exploratory stage and is not working on any legislative proposals.

"After we conduct all of our oversight, if the companies demonstrate that without governmental regulation, they can do this, then I would say that there’s no need," Thompson said. "But we’re still in the informational stage of seeing whether or not that is, in fact, the case."