What if political leaders could see the outcome of your decisions beforehand? What if they could press the “reset” button when you made mistakes? This is what Modeling Religion Project is doing. Developed by a group of scientists, philosophers, and religion scholars, the project consists of a computer simulation populated by “virtual agents” mimicking the characteristics and beliefs of a country’s population. The model is then fed evidence-based social science tendencies of human behavior under certain conditions. For example, a sudden influx of immigrants may increase the probability of hostility in native groups.
Using this initial state as a baseline, they experiment using different scenarios to evaluate the effects of changes in the environment. Levers for change include adding newcomers, investing in education, changing economic policy, and others. The model then simulates outcomes from the changes, allowing scholars and policymakers to understand the effects of decisions or trends in a nation.
While the work is focused on religion, its findings have broad implications for other social sciences such as psychology, sociology, and political science. Among others, one of their primary goals is to better understand what factors can impact the level of religious violence. The government of Norway is about to put the models to test, where they hope to use the insights of the model to better integrate refugees into their nation.
Certainly, a project of such ambition is not without difficulties. For one, there are ethical questions around who gets to decide what is a good outcome and what is not. For example, one of the models provides a recommendation on how to speed up secularization in a nation. Is secularization a good path for every nation? Clearly, while the model raises interesting insights, using them in the real world may prove much harder than the complex math involved in building them. Furthermore, irresponsible use can quickly lead to social engineering. But while pause is prudent, the demand for effective policy making will only increase.
The concerns raised about results are valid, but some of the problematic consequences are already with us. Political leaders make daily decisions based on their own ideas of good and bad outcomes. The difference is that if these models prove to be accurate in their predictions, they could increase the chances that leaders will get the results they are seeking. Yet, even that is still an unproven proposition. The question is not whether the models are ethical, but how they are to be used. With the right accountability and ethical safeguards, models like these could become a great tool to help societies solve intractable problems.
Reality Changing Observations:
1. Should government leaders use AI tools to make policy decisions?
2. How should religious leaders approach these simulations?
3. Should societies become more religious or secularize? Why?