Technology can be a critical tool for conflict resolution, peace-making and reconciliation

Date: Nov 16, 2022 | News, Opinion Pieces


Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the outgoing Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. On 1 March 2023, he will be the Rector of the United Nations (UN) University and UN Under-Secretary-General. He recently penned an opinion article that first appeared in the Daily Maverick on 12 November 2022.

Much can be gained from tapping into the potential of artificial intelligence as a peace-making tool. For example, through Natural Language Processing, we can follow debates on social media channels to better understand the dynamics in specific regions and the impact this could have on peace.

To paraphrase Karl Marx, the history of the world is the history of conflicts and revolutions. At the height of the French Revolution, when the idea of “liberty, equality and fraternity” was replaced by the guillotine and the blood of the innocents was flowing through France, the philosopher Jacques Mallet du Pan remarked that “like Saturn, the Revolution devours its children.”

It has been my observation that revolutions are often accompanied by violence unless they are led by great leaders. Whether it is the reign of terror in France after the French Revolution, where approximately 17,000 people were executed or the aftermath of the Russian Revolution where between 50,000 and 200,000 people were executed or in China where in August 1966 approximately 1,772 were killed, revolutions lead to more violence after the revolution. Often the justification is to combat counter-revolution.

Here, I am excluding genocides in the Second World War, Rwanda and Cambodia because the horrors were so immense that they require special attention.

Why do revolutions lead to violence in their aftermath? It is because they attract certain types of personalities who are not suited to kindness, and very often, they do not know how to govern after the revolution. What then is to be done to combat such a flow of history and avoid deaths?

After our revolution in South Africa, we enacted engagement, peace and reconciliation to prevent post-revolution violence. Whether we were successful in this regard is a raging debate, but suffice to say, despite many imperfections that are too numerous to mention here, South Africa after 1994 fared better than most revolutions.

Intriguingly, debate persists over whether violence and a push for more demands should have been prioritised at the time. Some ask whether this would have led to a more equitable and equal future. I do not think this is the case. I think the violence would have consumed us as a nation and peace would have passed us by as a missed opportunity.

In 2015, the poet Warsan Shire wrote, “I held an atlas in my lap, ran my fingers across the whole world and whispered, where does it hurt? It answered everywhere, everywhere, everywhere.”

War has long defined our history.

The Global Conflict Tracker presents a grim picture of our current state of affairs. From civil war in South Sudan, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, warring factions within Syria and the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, to serve as just a cursory overview, we are a world defined by instability and conflict.

In South Africa, the unrest that unfolded in mid-2021 demonstrated the impact of a state battered by years of State Capture, high unemployment and increasing inequality. The Washington Post referred to the conflict that ensued as a warning to the world: this is what happens when the gross disparities that shape a society boil over.

The psychologist William James once advised that war is so widespread because of its positive psychological effects. As he argued, war produces a sense of unity in the face of a shared threat. Others argue that wars are fought in the name of economic benefit. But this is a narrative we need to subvert. Science, engagement, peace and reconciliation should underpin our sense of unity. As James asserts, humans need to find “the moral equivalent of war” as a means of fulfilment. We seem to be faced with a juncture allowing us to do just this.

As intelligent technology — and artificial intelligence (AI) in particular — becomes increasingly entrenched in our lives, it stands to reason that scientific engagement and its fruits can define our feelings of empowerment and our ability to pursue our goals, regardless of context.

Massimo Pigliucci of Cuny-City College articulates, “the question of fulfilment is at the interface between science and philosophy — it requires both critical reflection and empirical data.” We can argue that our response to conflicts should represent this interface. To lean into this thought, the question perhaps becomes, how do we mitigate the risk factors of conflict?

Importantly, this does not speak to just the context of South Africa, for example, but instead serves as an overarching global strategy. One argument is that there should be a call for greater intelligent mediation tactics.

Research indicates that negotiations are increasingly being supplemented with online activities, which produce large amounts of data that cannot be sufficiently analysed using conventional means. In 2018, for example, the #CyberMediation initiative was developed to determine the impact of technology on mediation, including their benefit and risks to create a platform for collaboration between technology companies, mediators and policymakers. Another argument is that there needs to be an effective prediction of the possibility of conflict between and within states.

For example, Monica Lagazio and I, in our book Militarized Conflict Modeling Using Computational Intelligence, found that neural networks, or a series of algorithms that recognise patterns, have already been implemented to predict militarised interstate disputes. Yet, Support Vector Machines (SVMs), which use a classification system for algorithms, proved to be more effective as a prediction technique.

It is apparent that much more can be gained from tapping into the potential of AI. Through Natural Language Processing, which analyses languages, we can follow debates on social media channels to better understand the dynamics in specific regions and the impact this could have on peace.

Then, there also needs to be a push towards achieving the tenets set out by the sustainable development goals (SDGs), as these underlying factors are often drivers of conflict. Better tracking systems through satellites or drones could give us a clearer picture of resource challenges at a state level. Moreover, there is scope to utilise AI at a decision-making level. Humans are not rational because of imperfect and limited information, limited and inconsistent processing power through the brain and the inability to optimise decisions and achieve maximum utility.

As I stated in my book, Artificial Intelligence for Rational Decision Making, machines represent “the ideal concept of intelligence”. They thus should be used in the decision-making process as they exemplify rationality.

Alongside and in the aftermath of conflict, we are faced with human suffering, displacement, migration, destroyed infrastructure and the redirecting of critical resources. In a lecture delivered at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) last week, Nobel Peace Prize winner Professor Abdulrazak Gurnah stated that as non-conflict states, we have a responsibility to refugees to provide a safe haven. This support, as he argues, is intrinsic to human nature in the context of crises. Yet, how do we go about this when so many require support? How does intelligent technology provide the answers here?

Chatham House, for instance, suggests that AI could be used for decision-making support, identity verification and risk analysis. Elsewhere, platforms such as Refugees.AI use machine learning to settle refugees into local communities. Similar initiatives have cropped up across the world. These are but a few examples of the opportunities AI presents.

To paraphrase Lucia Nalbandian’s argument in the Comparative Migration Studies journal, the promise of AI is to put technology at the service of people (although, as she adds, this is not always the case). The strategies I have outlined above cannot be confined to a single case study or region but need to be adopted globally to ensure that we centre human good over all else.

To lean into the words of World Economic Forum (WEF) executive chairman Klaus Schwab, this is how we prioritise the promise over the peril of technology.

*The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

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