by Dawn Lim
Mark Twain once tried to distinguish between the storyteller’s art and tales that a machine could generate. He observed that stringing “incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities,” was the province of the American storyteller. A machine might imitate simple formulas behind yarns, but never quite master them.
The Pentagon’s freewheeling research arm is hoping to prove Twain wrong. Darpa is asking scientists to “take narratives and make them quantitatively analyzable in a rigorous, transparent and repeatable fashion.” The idea is to detect terrorists who have been indoctrinated by propaganda. Then, the Pentagon can respond with some messages of its own.
The program is called “Narrative Networks.” By understanding how stories have shaped your mind, the Pentagon hopes to sniff out who has fallen prey to dangerous ideas, a neuroscience researcher involved in the project tells Danger Room. With this knowledge, the military can also target groups vulnerable to terrorists’ recruiting tactics with its own counter-messaging.
“Stories are important in security contexts,” Darpa said in an Oct. 7 solicitation for research proposals. Stories “change the course of insurgencies, frame negotiations, play a role in political radicalization, influence the methods and goals of violent social movements.” The desire to study narratives has been simmering for a while in the Defense Department. A Darpa workshop in April to discuss the “neurobiology of narratives” added momentum to this project.
In the first 18-month phase of the program, the Pentagon wants researchers to study how stories infiltrate social networks and alter our brain circuits. One of the stipulated research goals: to “explore the function narratives serve in the process of political radicalization and how they can influence a person or group’s choice of means (such as indiscriminant violence) to achieve political ends.”
Once scientists have perfected the science of how stories affect our neurochemistry, they will develop tools to “detect narrative influence.” These tools will enable “prevention of negative behavioral outcomes … and generation of positive behavioral outcomes, such as building trust.” In other words, the tools will be used to detect who’s been controlled by subversive ideologies, better allowing the military to drown out that message and win people onto their side.
“The government is already trying to control the message, so why not have the science to do it in a systematic way?” said the researcher familiar with the project.
When the project enters into a second 18-month phase, it’ll use the research gathered to build “optimized prototype technologies in the form of documents, software, hardware and devices.” What will these be? Existing technology can carry out micro-facial feature analysis, and measure the dilation of blood vessels and eye pupils. MRI machines can determine which parts of your brain is lighting up when it responds to stories. Darpa wants to do even better.
In fact, it’s calling for devices that detect the influence of stories in unseen ways. “Efforts that rely solely on standoff/non-invasive/non-detectable sensors are highly encouraged,” the solicitation reads.
Forget lie detectors; invisible propaganda-detectors are the future.