Belmont Club

The Rise of the Machines

A special task force of the Joint Chiefs is studying ways to expand the use of the American drone fleet into Pacific and Africa Command spaces. The Washington Times reports that the drones being released from service in Afghanistan and Iraq are heading to theaters around the world to assume other duties.

Two commands likely to get more drones are the Pacific Command and Africa Command, the official said. The Pacific Command is building up its forces in the face of China’s large-scale military buildup. Pacom also must deal with continuing tensions caused by North Korean military provocation.

Africa Command, too, is in need of drones after its rise to prominence during the recent Libya operations in support of anti-regime rebels.

But it is not just physical robots which are expanding their reach in warfare.  Some warfare exists principally online by and for its own sake. Recently some researchers discovered that one of the largest components of the terrorist meme is comprised of the virtual Jihad — not operational sites — but as a Game. Jarret Brachman and Alex Levine, writing in Foreign Policy,  found that what pulls many people, especially Western converts, into the Jihad are the exactly the same things that pull them into World of Warcraft. Points.

The online world of Islamic extremists, like all the other worlds of the Internet, operates on a subtly psychological level that does a brilliant job at keeping people like Abumubarak clicking and posting away — and amassing all the rankings, scores, badges, and levels to prove it. Like virtually every other popular online social space, the social space of online jihadists has become “gamified,” a term used to describe game-like attributes applied to non-game activities. It turns out that what drives online jihadists is pretty much exactly what drives Internet trolls, airline ticket consumers, and World of Warcraft players: competition.

One individual they studied was striving mightily to reach the 20,000 comment count in order to receive the coveted title of “administrator”. His wife threatened him with dire consequences if he did not abandon his ‘World of Holy Warcraft’ obsession, but to no avail. He wife’s entreaties fell on deaf ears and the man is now on his 63,000th comment. At some point he may need to go out and do something physical to get to the Ultimate Boss level. No doubt when he gets to that point, he’ll be so in thrall to the game there will be a fair chance he’ll do it.

One Britain-based Islamic extremist website called Salafi Media measures a user’s engagement level by a “fundamentalism metre.” The more “radical” or “fundamental” a user becomes, the more power and legitimacy he holds in the forum. … Once you’ve gained all the rep points and “thanks” you can accumulate, you’re close to winning one of the most prized goals in Islamist forums: administrator status — with all the badges, status, and access to special powers and secret levels that come along with it.

You can almost hear the British-based Jihadi watching his screen go through its welcome graphics while a woman’s voice intones “Greetings Jihadi!  You have been recruited by the Ummah to defend the Northwest Frontier against Bush and the Reaper armada.” This announcement of course, is followed by a stirring fanfare. Don’t laugh. It works and how.

One man in particular has been able to take advantage of the incentives of online gamification to pursue real-life terrorist recruits: Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born al Qaeda cleric hiding in Yemen, famous for having helped encourage a number of Western-based would-be jihadists into action. Nidal Malik Hasan, the alleged Fort Hood shooter… Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square bomber … and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab … attempting to blow up an airplane on Christmas Day 2009. Part of Awlaki’s success is due to his creative use of the principles of gaming both online and off, by using himself — or his personal affirmation — as a prize. His supporters vie for the right to connect with Awlaki, whether virtually or actually …

The “World of Holy Warcraft” is not a unique idea. America’s Army for example, “is a series of video games and other media developed by the United States Army and released as a global public relations initiative to help with recruitment … using computer game technology to provide the public a virtual Soldier experience that was engaging, informative and entertaining.” It has been denounced by some observers for militarizing culture. They have got it wrong. It should be denounced for playing Catch-up. For many people the Game has become Life, or maybe Life has acquired permanent gaming aspects.

But however that is, the online world, almost without anyone being aware of it,  has become an integral part of the real one. Some blog sites, for example, have evolved an informal structure of commenter reputation that mimics game communities and levels. They have their bards, jesters, pet trolls and sage commenters. And whether it is explicit or not, they have a kind of informal point system that leads to it. Certainly the Belmont Club does. Some commenters attain the status of legend to disappear, only to return at rare intervals like mystery figures from a secret quest. Such commenters (and the principal blog author) gain points either by providing accurate analysis or new information on a regular basis.

Not surprisingy some sites, like Ann Althouse’s for example, become very accurate leading edge indicators of breaking political developments. Commenters and author are striving with each other to accumulate peer-scored points in their universe. They become so good it is spooky, so much so that Althouse’s blog is being accused of having “prior knowledge” of JoAnne Kloppenburg’s defeat in Wisconsin. Althouse writes:

I’d like to know if I’m one of the “conservative bloggers,” and, if so, why am I being called “conservative”? (At the link, above, you can see why I suspect the reference is to me [and how I got my knowledge]. ) And who are the other bloggers?

Kloppenburg is stirring up public suspicion of the vote-counting process. That is a very serious matter, especially for someone who aspires to a seat on this highest court in the state. She should be scrupulous about the way she presents facts and should not manipulate public opinion. If the evidence does not warrant mistrust, it is injudicious to stimulate mistrust.

Maybe Althouse probably didn’t have any prior knowledge, but the collective mind at her site may have been pretty close to prescient. But presicience is a dangerous thing as suggested in what Wired calls Mind Reading Drones:  drones with highly developed artificial intelligence systems that can eventually compute the “intent” of other objects in the sky.

It all starts with a solution for a legitimate problem. It’s dangerous to fly and land drones at busy terminals. Manned airplanes can collide with drones, which may not be able to make quick course adjustments based on information from air traffic control as swiftly as a human pilot can. And getting air traffic control involved in the drones cuts against the desire for truly autonomous aircraft. What to do?

The answer: Design an algorithm that reads people’s minds. Or the next best thing — anticipates a pilot’s reaction to a drone flying too close.

So what could go wrong? The designers asked the obvious next question: if a drone can analyze the behavior of pilots, why couldn’t it determine patterns which were potentially malevolent? Could it lift out intruders, smugglers, gun-runners or suicide pilots from the general traffic pattern? The technology was there. “Many of the pilot-intent-analysis techniques described are also applicable for determining illegal intent and are therefore directly applicable to finding terrorists and smugglers”. And so “prescience” has become a way of determining “illegal intent”.  A firm has contracted with the Air Force to see if it can be done. Maybe Kloppenburg should get in touch.

But it’s already being done at the World of Holy Warcraft. Both the administrators of the site and counter-terror analysts are watching those who are diligently, tirelessly and perhaps obsessively, are climbing toward their 97,000 post towards the coveted title of “militant of the year”. They know what’s going down, even if the hapless player himself doesn’t. When he gets the all-expense paid ticket to Pakistan or perhaps a greeting from the Eye in the Sky, he will be the first to know and the last to understand.

I guess we should really start to worry when Belmont Club starts getting comments from an IP moving over Libya at 200 miles per hour. “Just what is your intent, folks, just asking.” Until then we can innocently sing:

Every single day
Every word you say
Every game you play
Every night you stay
I’ll be watching you

Every move you make
Every vow you break
Every smile you fake
Every claim you stake
I’ll be watching you


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