It may be 2019 for the rest of us, but Sweden took a big step towards an Orwellian 1984 this week when it launched a robot capable of evaluating human speech and writing — and reporting “hate speech” to the proper authorities.
While the country has never been a bastion of free speech like the United States, this step has even casual readers making comparisons to the world of 1984 and the control an all-seeing, all-knowing Big Brother had over a cowed populace.
Unironically named the “HateOmatic”, the new hate speech robot went online this week after being rolled out by its creators, the Swedish Defense Research Institute and its partners. The “Hatometen” is an AI-powered robot that is designed to detect and report hate speech online and on social media.
The HateOmatic founders are currently asking individuals to feed it examples of what they consider hate speech to help the robot form an algorithm that could be used to evaluate the posts and speech of online users.
This new initiative is alarming some individuals, because of the possibility of punishment for social media and online posts that don’t measure up to the robot’s idea of “good” posting. According to a recent press release from the founding group, Hatometen is “a collaboration between the FOI, a part of the Defence Ministry, as well as the Swedish national police and the University of Uppsala, designed to investigate the possibilities of recognizing hateful texts in Swedish with technology.”
Users can visit Hatomaten.com to input hate speech and to help the robot learn to classify posts and speech. According to the website, “Hatomaten is a digital robot that wants to be fed with hatred and then, with the help of algorithms, be able to help us detect hatred in written text.” Hate is defined as “threats, violations and harassment of groups or individual individuals in digital environments affects us all and threatens free speech.”
While the goal of the program seems to have the greater good in mind, there are already clear issues with the concept of a Big Brother style robot that can be relied on to judge the speech of others (without context or understanding of sarcasm). Part of the issue (beyond the obvious comparisons to 1984, is the number of hate speech convictions in Sweden in the past few years.
In 2019 alone, 459 people were prosecuted for hate speech crimes in Sweden; the addition of a robot designed to evaluate posts and determine what is and is not hate speech could lead to more activity. An individual prosecuted or charged because of the finding of an AI instead of a human could lead to false accusations and imprisonment — and even those eventually found not guilty would face public embarrassment and potential consequences.
As the HateOMatic continues to learn, free speech advocates in both Sweden and the United States are watching in alarm and drawing comparisons to George Orwell’s classic novel and the idea of controlling the speech and thoughts of others.