09/26/2023, 13.46
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Iran: artificial intelligence in the ayatollahs' fatwas

by Dario Salvi

A debate has opened in the country between those in favor and skeptics in the use of technology, in particular for the "speeding up" of the publications of sentences on religious matters. Beyond the dichotomy between tradition and modernity, Khamenei himself asks religious people to explore and support this process. Iranian government investments in the sector.

Milan (AsiaNews) - In a perspective of "modernization" while maintaining the "Muslim" imprint of the teachings and in accordance with the dictates of Islam, Iranian leaders, at the instigation of the supreme leader Ali Khamenei, are looking at artificial intelligence in practice religious, from fatwas to madrasas.

The heart of this initiative is the holy city of Qom, where approximately half of the 200,000 Shiite religious leaders live, the main reference center for the teaching of the Muslim faith in Iran and the place where many of the religious edicts are issued or disputes over doctrineare resolved. 

The clerical establishment sees AI as a means to be more responsive to society's demands, while safeguarding its traditional values. In the Qom seminars themselves, the hope is that technology can contribute to a more in-depth analysis of the texts and the speeding up of sentences (fatwas, which can touch on the most disparate topics, not only in matters of faith but also of daily life), keeping pace “with an evolving society”.

Khamenei's support

“Robots do not replace senior legal scholars, but they can be a trusted assistant who can help them issue a fatwa faster,” Mohammad Ghotbi, head of a technology group in Qom, told the Financial Times.

Of course, the attention to artificial intelligence reflects the clash between tradition and modernity in Iran, as also emerged in the fight for rights and freedom triggered by the killing of the 22-year-old Kurd Mahsa Amini at the hands of the morality police. However, while the clerics of Qom work to protect traditional values, Iranians "are increasingly relying on technological progress", continues Ghotbi.

“Today's society – he warns – favors acceleration” and the clergy should not oppose this natural transition and the desire of the inhabitants of the Islamic Republic to share global technological progress.

Moreover, Khamenei himself seems to support this evolution, so much so as to urge the clergy to explore AI, while the head of the main seminary of the holy city welcomed the use of technology to "promote Islamic civilization".

“The seminar - Ayatollah Alireza Arafi stated in July - must be involved in the use of modern technologies, guided in progress” in particular regarding “artificial intelligence. We must enter this field – he explained – to promote Islamic civilization”.

"Exegesis and perplexities"

Nonetheless, adopting AI could prove challenging and ill-suited to the intricate legal system that governs Iranian Shia Islam (and the Muslim faith more generally). According to critics, in fact, he is unable to grasp the nuances necessary to issue complex sentences.

Ghotbi rsponds to this objection by explaining that it can "help" religious people respond "more quickly" to questions from the public, adapting Islam to modernity, without bothering with the exegesis of the Koran which is one of the great unresolved themes of faith Muslim.

Still others fear that AI could further erode the role of the clergy as interpreters of sharia, Islamic law, in a phase of protests and protests triggered by the controversy over the hijab, the compulsory veil.

According to experts at the Brookings Institution, one of the most significant challenges of integrating AI into traditional societies is the potential for cultural and moral erosion associated with it.

Because new technology, especially if designed and used without taking into account local values and traditions, can unintentionally promote a worldview or moral perspective that conflicts with customs and beliefs. This is therefore how efforts to use AI in the interpretation of religious texts, especially for Islam, can be a source of controversy.

An analysis by Oxford Islamic Studies suggests that interpretations of religious teachings require not only linguistic knowledge, but also historical, sociological and theological understanding.

The fear is that AI could lead to an excessive simplification or even a misunderstanding or incorrect reading of religious teachings, which are by their very nature rich in nuances. And it could also represent a "threat" to traditional learning methods and to madrasas, Koranic schools, in which great attention and emphasis is placed on the relationship that is established between teacher and student.

Tehran's plans

Artificial intelligence is one of the topics on the agenda for the Iranian leadership, which in the recent past has shown more than one interest and is already developing a three-point plan to exploit its potential.

The deputy head of the Department for Science and Technology Rouhollah Dehqani recently spoke about it, explaining the idea behind the project as follows: there are three "scientific development programs" being studied and investigated, of which “the first in universities.

The second - he continues - are the technological development programs that are pursued in companies that work in the field of artificial intelligence" and the last involves "the creation of a national technological center" for the sector.

The development road map dates back to 2022 and is the result of a year of scientific work at the Information and Communication Technology Research Institute, which saw the participation of academics and industrialists, both public and private.

The document is presented in two general sections: “Application Development” and “Enablers Development” underlines Mohammad-Shahram Moein, head of the AI Innovation and Development Center at the institute. “In the application development section, the main objective – he warns – is to use AI in priority areas such as health, transport and agriculture” while at a later stage the focus will be on “education, industry and the environment. In developing the enabling factors, we considered - he underlines - the training of specialized manpower, the development of infrastructure and the innovation system".

The document outlining the work, supported by Khamenei, includes 10 main objectives, 9 strategies and 156 activities for a 10-year horizon.

According to the Nature Index database, in 2021 the Islamic Republic ranked 13th in the world among the leading nations in the sector for overall number of publications. In July 2022, Deputy Science Minister Peyman Salehi declared that - despite US sanctions, the international activities of Iranian scientists are increasing, so much so that over 35% of the articles relating to Iran present on Scopus are multinational projects.

In the budget law for the year 1402 of the Iranian calendar, which began on March 21, approximately 37 trillion rials (75 million dollars) are foreseen for science and technology, with a 35% increase in the budget compared to the 'last year.

So far, over 8 thousand companies operating in the sector have been created throughout the country, called to produce "knowledge" and create "jobs" as desired by the supreme leader. Finally, the Innovation and Prosperity Fund has provided nearly 0 million to support knowledge-based businesses.

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