President of Signal: AI “dependent on mass surveillance”

Signal President Meredith Whittaker on May 23 (Photo: Miguel Medina / AFP)

Paris – Current artificial intelligence (AI) technologies are based on mass surveillance” which has become “the economic engine of the tech industry”, warns Meredith Whittaker, president of encrypted messaging Signal, met by AFP at the VivaTech fair in Paris.

AI “requires an astronomical amount of data” and produces it “every time it makes a prediction or generates content,” recalls Meredith Whittaker, who spent more than a decade working on issues of AI ethics at Google before slamming the door.

This data, which can be completely false, has the power “to direct our lives in ways that should alarm us,” she continues.

The risk of artificial intelligence, for this expert, is to believe the myth of an “intelligence with superhuman abilities” and not see that it is “in the hands of a handful of American technology companies that control the artificial intelligence and the infrastructures that manage it.

“This is the result of the economic model of mass surveillance, which was born in the 1990s in the United States, and which has become the economic engine of the tech industry,” she believes.

“We welcome these companies into our governments and our most fundamental institutions – and even our lives – without accountability,” warns Meredith Whittaker.

AI is “a tool for those with access to capital that is generally tested on those with less power,” she adds. “Most of us are not users of artificial intelligence, our employers or public law enforcement use it on us.”

“Reimagining” AI

Launched in 2014 and funded by donations, with no marketing campaign or communications budget, Signal quickly became popular with whistleblowers and journalists.

In terms of data security, the American application is a benchmark: it does not require the user to share his phone number, messages are encrypted via an internally developed protocol, and the amount of metadata that Signal has access to is minimal.

Its popularity increased in early 2021 when its competitor WhatsApp announced that it would share more data with its parent company Facebook. But with more than 40 million regular users, according to experts, it is still far behind the giants WhatsApp (more than 2 billion users) or Messenger (almost a billion).

The Californian foundation behind messaging has taken up residence in Paris until the end of the year to concentrate on the European market.

But for Meredith Whittaker, Europe should not try to compete with the US or China in an AI race “with algorithms that reinforce systems of inequality and control”.

Conversely, she calls on European leaders to “reimagine technology that can serve more democratic and rights-respecting societies.”

The boss “thinks that Signal is a good example and shows that we can build another technology that rejects the economic model of surveillance”.

“Makes me want to cry”

As for the need for open source AI (that is, with freely available source code), defended by the French companies Mistral AI or Hugging Face, but also the American Meta, Meredith Whittaker n I don’t believe that.

” What is open source code about a technology that requires $100 million in computing power to train a single model?” asks the woman who co-authored an article on the subject that will soon be published in the scientific journal Nature.

Making datasets available and allowing more transparency on models remains useful for Ms Whittaker, but “we need to review the definition and ask ourselves what we really mean by open source”.

It also invites us to take the promises of AI with a grain of salt regarding the environment.

“There’s this constant talk about environmental science, about some kind of climate intervention that will come from the ability to analyze large amounts of data, identify recurring patterns, and use artificial intelligence for climate,” she notes.

“But the amount of energy needed to create and implement these systems makes you want to cry,” claims the chairman of Signal, pointing out “a massive use of fossil fuels and water resources.”

By Daxia Rojasa, Agence France-Presse

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