Guest Post: The Dangers of Subliminal AI Manipulation

At the global level, in November 2021, UNESCO’s 193 member states adopted a recommendation on the ethics of artificial intelligence. The AI ​​Recommendation explicitly recognizes the “profound and dynamic positive and negative impacts of artificial intelligence (AI) on societies, environments, ecosystems and human lives, including of the human mindOn. The emphasis on the effects on the human mind is particularly noteworthy, as the use of AI affects not only the environment, but also human thinking, interaction and decision-making.


About the author:

Rostam J. Neuwirth is Professor of Law and Head of the Department of Global Legal Studies at the Faculty of Law, Macau University, Macau (China). His book The EU Artificial Intelligence Act was recently published by Routledge.

The European Commission’s proposal for an Artificial Intelligence (AI) law, published in April 2021, further draws attention to the serious dangers AI systems pose to human thinking and behaviour. The overall aim of the proposal is to ensure the reliability and security of AI systems.

Specifically, according to Article 5, the proposal provides for a ban on particularly harmful AI practices that violate the values ​​of the Union. This category of malicious AI systems includes systems that 1) exploit a weakness of a specific group of people, 2) evaluate the trustworthiness of individuals (social scoring systems), 3) used for real-time remote biometric identification, and 4) AI systems used for subliminal influence outside a person’s consciousness.

Combination with brain-computer interfaces

In particular, the last category of “subliminal AI systems” will play a key role in the current bill. The main reason for this is that AI, in combination with an ever-growing number of other advanced technologies, such as brain-computer interfaces (BCI), functional magnetic resonance imaging, big data, the Internet of Things, blockchain, robotics or eye tracking technologies and many more more, is not only capable of manipulating users’ minds, but also significantly influencing their behavior. These real possibilities to manipulate thoughts and behavior will only increase in the future. Computer programming has already expanded linguistically and technically to include human programming.

Manipulation techniques known for 100 years

That the dangers of subliminal manipulation are real has already been shown in studies carried out before 1917 by the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Otto Pötzl. Later, the same techniques were used in the US to increase the effectiveness of advertising, such as using subliminal images to sell popcorn and certain soft drinks. In a 1957 book (“Hidden Persuaders”), author Vance Packard warned that the use of subliminal techniques is and will be useful not only for commercial advertising, but also for the manipulation of political processes such as elections.

In Europe and elsewhere, such concerns eventually led to a blanket ban on subliminal advertising on television starting in 1989. In the 1990s, issues of subliminal manipulation made headlines again in the United States over several lawsuits against rock musicians whose songs were replaced with reverse messages. (mask backwards) would have been responsible for the suicide of several young people with subliminal messages.

From brain espionage to deep fakes

Today there is no scientific doubt about the efficiency and the real effects of subliminal techniques. In the field of neuromarketing, the question has not been formulated ifbut only more how efficient are these subliminal methods. The current state of the art is best characterized by so-called brain espionage software (brain spyware) illustrated. Using subliminal techniques and a machine learning model, this gives access to private data such as bank details, PIN codes, place of residence or date of birth in the brain.

Humanoid robot at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January 2022


Also so-called “dark patterns” (dark patterns), denoting the manipulative design of websites and social media posts, use undetectable deceptive elements to manipulate users in various ways, such as B. through veiled advertising, frightening, or “bait and switch”. Likewise will deep fakes or the combination of targeted ads with hidden algorithms used by search engines not only to determine the success of companies, but also to determine the outcome of elections, as the Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed.

Cumulative damages should also be included in law

The serious dangers associated with subliminal manipulation of thoughts and behavior require that the proposed legislation extend the legal scope of physical or psychological harm to other forms, such as financial, economic, cultural and social harm. Since these forms of manipulation are often subtle and spread through various media, their impact increases over time. It is therefore also necessary to further define the scope of such subliminal techniques so that cumulative damage, ie damage caused by continuous consumption, can also be included.

No absolute threshold for subliminal perception

With regard to the manipulation of thoughts and mind, it is also necessary to clarify the matter of the corresponding senses. According to psychophysics (i.e. the branch of psychology that studies the interrelationships between physical stimuli and the perception of those stimuli), there is no absolute threshold for subliminal perception, because the thresholds for a particular stimulus are both between different people and within a person. varies.

Developer Tammara Leites is illuminated by artificially generated text as part of the Avignon Art Festival in July 2022.


At the same time, many AI systems use manipulative techniques that work both below (subliminal) and above (supraliminal) the threshold of consciousness. In this case, the said prohibition on AI systems should therefore be extended from the “use of subliminal techniques” to “supraliminal techniques”, or replaced by the term “transliminal techniques”. The reason is that manipulative stimuli are dynamic and operate both above and below the threshold of conscious perception.

Broader definition of AI techniques needed

The example of the term “addiction by design” shows that the intensity and quantity of the stimuli will continue to increase with the future integration of the senses in the so-called “augmented and virtual reality”. propagates through the concept of the metaverse. For this reason, a broader definition of the manipulative techniques used by AI is also warranted and necessary, as the process of perceiving life involves all the senses and thus represents a multi-sensory experience. For the same reason, the traditional study of the senses, looking at them individually and limiting their number to five, is now clearly obsolete.

Global debate stimulated by UNESCO

Overall, the EU’s planned ban on harmful AI practices, including subliminal AI systems, is to be welcomed. At the same time, however, several related scientific issues need to be further examined and the necessary adjustments made to the final legal text. At the same time, a global debate, as successfully stimulated by the UNESCO Recommendation on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence, is also needed in order to not only seize the expected opportunities of AI, but also counteract the real dangers and harms accordingly.

Finally, it is worth remembering that as early as 1948 George Orwell in his novel 1984 warned that the invention of printing, film and radio made it easier to influence public opinion, bringing an end to “private life”. Translated into the present and the future, this means that AI and related technologies, such as: brain spywarepresent a real threat today that could end the “privacy of thought” in the future.

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