June 2, 2020

“Beware of he who would deny you access to information, for in his heart he dreams himself your master.”

So warned the 1999 computer game Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri.

Now, thanks to artificial intelligence, the nightmare of state control of the internet by regimes like China’s may become a little less vivid, U.S. researchers said.

Kevin Bock presented a U.S. research team’s censor-defying artificial intelligence, Geneva, to a London, U.K., conference on Nov. 15, 2019.

Geneva assembles computer codes that allow web browsers to evade internet censorship that blocks content or websites, according to a press release.

Geneva adds and subtracts bits of code to evolve its strategies like mutating DNA. The fittest strategies survive. This enables it to replicate human researchers’ work and discover new strategies humans couldn’t find.

“Geneva represents the first step toward a whole new arms race in which artificial intelligence systems of censors and evaders compete with one another,” researcher Dave Levin said in the release. “Ultimately, winning this race means bringing free speech and open communication to millions of users around the world who currently don’t have them.”

Levin, Kevin Bock and George Hughey of the University of Maryland and Xiao Qiang of the University of California, Berkeley, wrote the research paper; undergraduate students in Levin’s lab participated in the coding.

The team successfully tested Geneva against Chinese, Indian and Kazakhstani internet monitors.

Instead of humans painstakingly finding and counteracting censorship techniques, the release says, Geneva can evolve successful countermeasures by trial and error, revealing censors’ tactics.

The researchers plan to release Geneva publicly so it can claw at censors in the internet wilds. But many citizens of repressive regimes won’t be able or will fear to install it. So the team is looking to implement the AI on the servers that send website data to users instead.

“If Geneva can be deployed on the server side and work as well as it does on the client side, then it could potentially open up communications for millions of people,” Levin said.

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