Interview: Dr Heman Mohabeer – Artificial Intelligence Expert
‘There is no limit to the power of the one who can harness the capability of Artificial Intelligence’
‘Deep Fake is very dangerous considering the extent of damage it can cause to an influential person’
Dr Heman Mohabeer is an expert in Artificial Intelligence and holds a doctorate in the subject. In this interview he points out that the amount of data being generated by the multiplicity of devices being widely used on social media platforms represents a gold mine for AI experts who can analyze them in real time and project trends and tendencies in the electoral process among others. However, the flip side is that AI can also be exploited through devices such as Deep Fakes that can distort the process by targeting rivals negatively, something which is difficult to counter and here it is ethical considerations that are paramount. He feels that the young generation can no longer be taken for granted, and that their allegiance is more to competence than to personalities. Read on …
Mauritius Times: The Americans have pointed an accusing finger at the Russians for alleged interference in the presidential campaign which ultimately led to the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the US. How would you explain to the layman that this has nothing to do with fiction, and it’s indeed possible to do that with the input of Artificial Intelligence experts operating locally or even thousands of kilometres away?
Dr Heman Mohabeer: Indeed, this has nothing to do with fiction since most people nowadays have a digital presence (on social media, browsing the web, etc). We are living in the digital age of the Artificial Intelligence era. Because of the increase in the number of devices connected to the internet, laptops, smartphones, Internet of Things (IoT), to name a few, the data collected from these devices are enormous.
Today, just by surfing on the internet, one can derive insights into your browsing patterns and your social behaviour. Android devices uses trackers/GPS (even in offline mode!!) to know the exact location of a person. For example, if you frequently go on e-bay, you might notice that your Facebook page will be bombarded with advertisement from e-bay. This is possible due to the data generated from your digital behaviour.
We are so much connected to the net that unconsciously we are providing our social pattern to the digital world. Artificial intelligence (AI) can be used to dig deep and analyze information from various sources you visited to derive a digital profile of you. This profile can then be used to influence your behaviour.
* What is it that really takes place when AI comes into the picture during an electoral campaign? What is sought to be achieved and how does that happen?
Today, almost all political parties have a digital presence (on social media) to interact with people either to share posts about their accomplishments or for criticizing other political parties. The amount of data generated via comments can be used to derive insights into the impact of their actions. Hence, they can adjust their strategy accordingly to influence people.
These insights can be used to micro-target people with common interests and communicate strategically to influence them. Artificial Intelligence, unlike traditional statistics, can be used on big data that changes dynamically and learn from those data. The more dynamic the data the better Artificial Intelligence will learn, and the more insight can be found.
* What you are saying is that a technician well-versed in the science of AI operating thousands of kilometers away, or from Pointe aux Cannoniers for that matter, may manipulate the electorate’s behaviour or voter intentions to reach a desired electoral outcome. Right?
Exactly. Social media data is stored on the cloud and can be pulled from anywhere with the use of the right tools. Today, using social media, we can connect with people from any region across the globe. They can access our data and the same applies for us.
If we look at what happened with Cambridge Analytica, one can understand the impact of Data Analytics on social media to influence people by combining using data analytics using AI to develop strategic communication during the electoral processes. (Cambridge Analytica Ltd was a British political consulting firm which combined data mining, data brokerage, and data analysis with strategic communication during the electoral processes. It was started in 2013, and closed operations in 2018 in the wake of the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal.)
Imagine a company in the UK which has allegedly influenced elections being held in several foreign countries including a superpower like the USA and an emerging one – India. Unfortunately, we have reached a stage of development in the field of data mining, data brokerage, and data analysis where the one who harnesses the data controls the people.
* Would it therefore be correct to assert therefore that AI has the potential of a game changer in the world of politics — not only in the world of technology?
Definitely, and I might even add that it is already happening with the potential creation of Deep Fake videos to trick people into believing in something that might never have happened in the first instance.
Deep Fake is very dangerous considering the extent of damage it can cause to an affluent or influential person. Fortunately, people are becoming more and more intelligent and are thus more programme-based than personality-based in making their electoral decisions. The political party that will present the most realistic propositions will win rather than the candidates they propose. However, digital presence means less privacy since we share our social tendencies on digital platforms, and this can be used in various ways during an election (as I previously mentioned) to influence voters.
* Are we therefore saying, Dr Mohabeer, that the traditional manner in which electoral campaigns are conducted here as in most countries of the world in varying degrees with meetings and the assorted “reunions privées”, door-to-door canvassing at the constituency level, distribution of political pamphlets, etc, would be no match — and increasingly so in the years ahead – for AI with its potential for mischief?
With the amount of people present on social media, this phenomenon is bound to happen. Social media is highly considered as a better means to engage with people in a more interactive manner hence the adoption of social media platforms by political parties. ‘Door-to-Door’ is only temporary, while engaging on social media gives a sense of ‘appartenance’ with the larger crowd with whom people can share their ideas and form communities of common interest. What takes place on these digital platforms – the discussions, the trends, likes and dislikes — will provide useful insights to those involved in preparing electoral speeches or electoral manifestos, which are more people-oriented rather than government-oriented.
* That goes well beyond what George Orwell could have envisaged decades ago. How then do you counteract the mischiefs of Artificial Intelligence-aided electoral campaigns? By more advanced AI tools?
It is all related to the ethical considerations of the person working with AI. This is a long debate that has been ongoing for the past five years. The responsible use of AI for the benefit of humanity is the primary goal of the creator of the AI. But a gun can be used either for safety or to commit a crime. It only rests on the intention of that person.
Having studied almost all the AI technologies developed so far, I find that there are many ways in which we can counter the mischiefs of AI. But implementing countermeasures might be too time-consuming and therefore a cautious approach must be taken. Moreover, the one who uses AI for the wrong reasons must also fear that it might backfire if wrongly used.
However more advanced AI tools might not necessarily be useful. We ought to study what technology is being used to be able to develop a remedy in case of misuse.
* All that does not mean that any Donald or Trump can be placed in a position of power here or elsewhere, be it in a prime ministerial or presidential post, with inputs from AI technicians, local or foreign — whether they are Russians, Iranians or Israelis, right? The local socio-political and economic contexts, the profiles of the candidates and of the electorate and so many other factors come into play, isn’t it?
Exactly, power attracts power. The limit of power is not defined by one’s ability to influence but rather to impose. There is no limit to the power of the one who can harness the capability of AI. It is believed that the next world war will be that of ‘CyberWar’. AI is a technology that has no limit. Worse, it does not have an identity or a face, which makes it even more dangerous in the wrong hands. There is little we can do but to accept it with the hope that AI will be used for the benefit of humanity rather than for causing harm.
* We have heard about proliferation of “Fake News” on the social media, now there’s is talk about “Deep Fakes”, which Google explains is a “technique for human image synthesis based on AI” and “used to combine and superimpose existing images and videos onto source images or videos”. The common man is not in a position to detect fake videos, so the potential for harm is also immense, isn’t it?
Initially, photos could be manipulated using photoshop to give an illusion of reality. Now, with the advances in technologies, it is possible to manipulate existing videos. This is different from Computer-generated imagery (CGI). CGIs normally simulate new environments using the green space during the creation of the videos. Using deep fake, an existing video can be manipulated through the use of AI to give a sense of manipulated reality.
Deep Fakes are by far the most advanced type of video manipulation and are improving exponentially due to technological advances. The amount of data required to generate realistic videos is huge and the computational power required is high. There are techniques which can be used to overcome these limitations.
The way to ensure responsible use of Deep Fakes is to rely on the ethical consideration of the people who are working with these technologies. The potential for harm is however immense since there are no regulations that can prohibit the use of such techniques to develop videos. We can only implement regulations on the data and not on the technology.
* But can Deep Fakes be detected and denounced in a credible manner?
With the improvement in algorithms and the huge amount of data available, these so-called Deep Fakes are becoming increasingly difficult to be detected. However, there are certain aspects of the videos that can be verified to know whether they are true or manipulated. Examples are motion blur at the edge of the face, tiny warps during a conversation, etc. Generative Adversarial Network developed by Ian Goodfellow is at the heart of such advancement.
However, even if there are techniques that an AI engineer can use to detect even the best of videos, technology is fast evolving and eventually we’ll come to a point where Deep Fakes will appear so realistic that it will be practically impossible to detect. The algorithm exists but the computing power required is enormous. The complexities of such techniques are big and require lots of resources just like the creation of Deep Fake videos.
* Speaking of social media platforms, namely Facebook, which is the most popular one locally, how far would you say in your experience as an AI expert are they effective in influencing public opinion and voters’ intention? Can this be measured?
Social media platforms are considered as an alternative means for propagating news in a faster and more efficient way. Today, people get updated instantly on social media on events that are happening in the country. Opinions of people are major influencers.
Let me give one example. Let’s assume I want to buy a new iPhone. My first step would be to check on feedbacks on the product on the internet. Most of the time I am influenced by such feedbacks. Similarly, positive and negative comments have a lot of impact. The same applies for voters’ intentions, which can be effectively measured to a certain degree of accuracy to provide a forecast of the election results.
* True, but Facebookers, young and old alike, do not necessarily form the majority of the electorate, do they?
I beg to differ. My parents are social media savvy and they derive most of their information from social media platforms. Even YouTube plays a vital role in providing information and in shaping opinion. My belief is that our local station (MBC) has lost its credibility because it did not realize that it would have strong competition from social media and Facebook. People now strongly believe that the news provided on local TV is but one-sided thus the constant and daily criticisms of our local channels. Most people have a smart tv in their homes and can easily connect to youTube which mostly provide unbiased information (unbiased because their credibility can be verified based on the comments obtained).
* Are you saying that the forthcoming general elections will be won and lost on the pages of Facebook?
Not really, but it will have a major impact on the electoral results for sure as youngsters and the working class mostly follow events on social media rather than attend meetings.
Being connected to the internet has become a necessity in our digital world. Most people in Mauritius have a Facebook account. Their opinions are determined by the information they see. Social media can be accessed from anywhere and at any time of the day. Nowadays, many political parties have adopted social media for their live meeting because they believe it will help them target more people. These meetings can be reviewed again and again and their reach (number of people who viewed) can easily be determined. This is yet another indicator of their influence. In fact, there is a whole body of data science interpretation that can be done on social media that might help in winning an election.
* But ‘Likes’ on Facebook need not necessarily translate into votes for a given party or alliance, isn’t it?
Facebook ‘Likes’ cannot be considered as indicators of votes. However, comments do provide an indicator of tendencies and can be used as a tool of influence if correctly interpreted. Using data science and AI techniques it is very easy to determine the political tendencies and give an indication which political party has a winning edge on the election. To the common man or the uninformed, the data collected might mean nothing but for the data scientist, these data are a gold mine.
* What would survey data analysis inform us, in your view, about the expectations of today’s electorate as well as the motivations of its different segments?
Surveys might provide a strong indicator of what the people want and how they accept proposals or change. This is one among many types of information that can be extracted. As previously mentioned, using data analysis, micro-targeting is possible and thus the chance of winning the election is greatly increased. Most youngsters will probably not attend any meeting during the electoral campaign, but I can safely confirm that many of them follow the news without explicitly disclosing their political tendencies. Using data analysis, an insight into their preferences can be derived with a good amount of certainty. Such information is valuable for the politicians and can be used to develop new strategies as a pulling factor.
* Do you think that the people’s support, especially that of the younger generation, will increasingly go towards the competent rather than the popular or the charismatic in the years ahead?
People are tired of nepotism and opacity. The younger generation believes in competence and meritocracy. They challenge social beliefs as they believe in their own capabilities. Having worked with lots of youngsters, I can firmly ascertain that we have a bright future ahead provided that these youngsters are provided a chance to shine. Election is a vote of popularity rather than a vote of competency. There are lots of competent people who prefer to work in the shadow for the interest of the country rather than be on a political stage. Competent people might not necessary be influential leaders. In the political world, a charismatic leader is more appealing than a competent person. It is just like a movie where the director is the brain, but it is the actor that pulls the crowd. However, this is also changing ….
* Pravind Jugnauth is present on the political scene by virtue of his prime ministerial position, but you still find the “older” leaders, namely Navin Ramgoolam and Paul Bérenger (who are past their 70s) dominating the scene. The younger ones are really struggling to keep afloat. Isn’t it because ours is a conservative society despite of Facebook?
It is not about putting young people for your own benefit but rather putting a programme and giving a chance for everyone to contribute. The willingness to work for the betterment of the country is more important than the person himself. Youngsters do need a chance and a platform to shine. However, we are talking at national level. We need to have a captain who is experienced enough to navigate us on all seas. We are living in an era of economic uncertainty where only the most experienced one can help us through. We are not France or Canada where we have a robust economy that we can rely on.
* It’s being said in different quarters that the 2019 elections are going to be one of the most complex this country has known in years due to the fact that we have two parties drawing their support from the same vote bank in a three-cornered fight. Voter sentiments are apparently changing dramatically for different reasons by the day. What’s your best guess about the election outcome?
We need to recognize and value local expertise, and give them a chance rather than judge them because of nepotism, which I have personally experienced. Let’s hope that the one who wins the election ends this nepotism and will work for the younger generation as they are by far our greatest asset. I want to be politically correct and say that the one who will work for the people will be elected by the people.
* Published in print edition on 25 October 2019