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Artificial Intelligence

The Psychological Impact of Artificial Intelligence

Is the darkest side of AI already here?

Key points

  • The biggest risk of AI comes from the potential manipulation of people: brainwashing.
  • Fake news is a tool for divisiveness and brainwashing.
  • Humans are using AI to create and spread fake news, not the other way around.
Geralt/ Pixabay
Source: Geralt/ Pixabay

Experts, governmental agencies, and even some of the general public are growing concerned about the evolution of robotic artificial intelligence and its potential impact. How long will it be before massive metallic creatures are marching down our streets killing people with unfathomable weapons? How long will it be before they physically take over governmental agencies and control nations?

But wait a minute. Isn’t the physical domination of people an outdated concept? It was the modus operandi of imperialists two centuries ago when they had vastly superior resources, like weapons and well-trained and coordinated military forces.

However, as Vladimir Putin has discovered, armed force only makes your victims more determined to fight back and recruit allies. In such a world, military force is not the answer to disintegrating a nation.

Public "Relations"

In the 1920s, Freud’s nephew Ernest Bernays realized he could use some of his uncle’s ideas to influence the minds of consumers. And thus, the modern version of public relations was born.

Bernays would have dismissed the idea that the best way of getting people to buy his clients’ products was to threaten them with violence. No, a much smarter and more effective way was to silently get inside their heads.

Fast forward to today and companies and people are studying the brain and which specific parts to manipulate in their favor. It’s called neuromarketing.

Currently, experts studying the potential impact of advanced AI have concluded that the biggest risk of AI and robots comes from the potential manipulation of people. Brainwashing is much more effective and cheaper than military action.

Such manipulation has indeed been amplified by AI and the ability to create fake news. And almost anyone can do it and reach millions of people instantly.

Content That Divides

In a recent Big Think article, Robert Sapolsky highlighted the fact that the brain has a natural fear response to things that are different and this tendency is activated, and developed, by false reports that present events as a battle between an identifiable, poor victim and an outgroup, satanic villain.

Sapolsky states,

Humans invent 'Us' and 'Them' groups wherever they look, whether it’s on the basis of sex, race, nationality, class, age, religion, hair color—there’s nothing we won’t discriminate against, and we do it within a twentieth of a second of seeing someone. Are they an 'Us' or are they a 'Them?' The flaw in this hardwired thinking reflex is also its silver lining: it is ridiculously easy to manipulate. You can overthrow your brain’s most primal reactions in this way but, as history shows, other people can also get in your head and manipulate the Us versus Them reflex to tragic and catastrophic results.

Shooting someone in the leg is one thing, but hijacking their trust and belief is a lot more powerful. As Sally Kempton wrote, “It’s hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head.”

Fake news is a tool for divisiveness and brainwashing to alarming degrees. It is no coincidence that such disruption is currently at extremely high levels, not just in the United States, but in many nations.

Humans Are Using AI, Not the Other Way Around

Now, it will be obvious to many readers that AI itself isn’t doing this, it is being directed by humans, which is, of course, the case with many AI applications. Many headlines pronounce that AI has created a new device or a cure for some disease as if humans had nothing to do with the new invention.

In my recent book, Sherlock Holmes Versus Artificial Intelligence, Holmes rants against this deception.

Don’t people realize that it is humans that are programming these things! Yes, imperfect, biased humans, with their own agenda, not perfectly logical, independent minds, operating for the good of humanity! How can people be so stupid!

He then muses on how such a development might have made the news a century ago.

New technology creates the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for Mark Twain! Oh my God, he used a typewriter, which was clearly instrumental in the author’s creation. A typewriter creates an amazing fictional character!

The Unlearned Lesson About Communication

Physical and even psychological confrontation is an outdated methodology for convincing anyone of anything. In the modern psychotherapeutic world, psychiatrist Milt Erickson was the genius who articulated that for the most part: Challenging people about their ideas and beliefs was a waste of time that might very well have the opposite effect—the hardening of their views and behaviors. He realized that to be an effective communicator you don’t want to arouse people’s defenses but meet them where they were at psychologically.

More recently, behavioral economics represented well by Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, identified numerous biases that people use to justify their beliefs. One of the most compelling is confirmation bias, where one looks only for confirming evidence of what you want to believe.

Fake news feeds that bias to an extraordinary degree, dividing people and silently killing any idea, let alone opportunity, for respectful listening and rational debate.

It is generally agreed that the secret to wisdom is open-mindedness, humility, and recognition that your knowledge is incomplete. Patience, respect and the ability to listen are critical components of a healthy society or any group.

As George Bernard Shaw wrote,

Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.

Humans are using AI to create and spread fake news, which is killing wisdom, without firing a single shot.


Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Taibbi, M. (2019) Hate inc. Why Today's Media Makes Us Despise One Another. OR books

Haley,J, Arens, B et al. (1986) Uncommon Therapy: The Psychiatric Techniques of Milton H. Erickson, M.D. W.W. Norton

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