Upcoming Speaking Engagements
This is a current list of where and when I am scheduled to speak:
- I’m speaking at IT-S Now 2023 in Vienna, Austria, on June 2, 2023 at 8:30 AM CEST.
The list is maintained on this page.
This is a current list of where and when I am scheduled to speak:
The list is maintained on this page.
A video—authentic, not a deep fake—of a giant squid close to the surface.
As usual, you can also use this squid post to talk about the security stories in the news that I haven’t covered.
Read my blog posting guidelines here.
Ted Chiang has an excellent essay in the New Yorker: “Will A.I. Become the New McKinsey?”
The question we should be asking is: as A.I. becomes more powerful and flexible, is there any way to keep it from being another version of McKinsey? The question is worth considering across different meanings of the term “A.I.” If you think of A.I. as a broad set of technologies being marketed to companies to help them cut their costs, the question becomes: how do we keep those technologies from working as “capital’s willing executioners”? Alternatively, if you imagine A.I. as a semi-autonomous software program that solves problems that humans ask it to solve, the question is then: how do we prevent that software from assisting corporations in ways that make people’s lives worse? Suppose you’ve built a semi-autonomous A.I. that’s entirely obedient to humans—one that repeatedly checks to make sure it hasn’t misinterpreted the instructions it has received. This is the dream of many A.I. researchers. Yet such software could easily still cause as much harm as McKinsey has.
Note that you cannot simply say that you will build A.I. that only offers pro-social solutions to the problems you ask it to solve. That’s the equivalent of saying that you can defuse the threat of McKinsey by starting a consulting firm that only offers such solutions. The reality is that Fortune 100 companies will hire McKinsey instead of your pro-social firm, because McKinsey’s solutions will increase shareholder value more than your firm’s solutions will. It will always be possible to build A.I. that pursues shareholder value above all else, and most companies will prefer to use that A.I. instead of one constrained by your principles.
EDITED TO ADD: Ted Chiang’s previous essay, “ChatGPT Is a Blurry JPEG of the Web” is also worth reading.
We will all soon get into the habit of using AI tools for help with everyday problems and tasks. We should get in the habit of questioning the motives, incentives, and capabilities behind them, too.
Imagine you’re using an AI chatbot to plan a vacation. Did it suggest a particular resort because it knows your preferences, or because the company is getting a kickback from the hotel chain? Later, when you’re using another AI chatbot to learn about a complex economic issue, is the chatbot reflecting your politics or the politics of the company that trained it?
For AI to truly be our assistant, it needs to be trustworthy. For it to be trustworthy, it must be under our control; it can’t be working behind the scenes for some tech monopoly. This means, at a minimum, the technology needs to be transparent. And we all need to understand how it works, at least a little bit.
Amid the myriad warnings about creepy risks to well-being, threats to democracy, and even existential doom that have accompanied stunning recent developments in artificial intelligence (AI)—and large language models (LLMs) like ChatGPT and GPT-4—one optimistic vision is abundantly clear: this technology is useful. It can help you find information, express your thoughts, correct errors in your writing, and much more. If we can navigate the pitfalls, its assistive benefit to humanity could be epoch-defining. But we’re not there yet.
Let’s pause for a moment and imagine the possibilities of a trusted AI assistant. It could write the first draft of anything: emails, reports, essays, even wedding vows. You would have to give it background information and edit its output, of course, but that draft would be written by a model trained on your personal beliefs, knowledge, and style. It could act as your tutor, answering questions interactively on topics you want to learn about—in the manner that suits you best and taking into account what you already know. It could assist you in planning, organizing, and communicating: again, based on your personal preferences. It could advocate on your behalf with third parties: either other humans or other bots. And it could moderate conversations on social media for you, flagging misinformation, removing hate or trolling, translating for speakers of different languages, and keeping discussions on topic; or even mediate conversations in physical spaces, interacting through speech recognition and synthesis capabilities.
Today’s AIs aren’t up for the task. The problem isn’t the technology—that’s advancing faster than even the experts had guessed—it’s who owns it. Today’s AIs are primarily created and run by large technology companies, for their benefit and profit. Sometimes we are permitted to interact with the chatbots, but they’re never truly ours. That’s a conflict of interest, and one that destroys trust.
The transition from awe and eager utilization to suspicion to disillusionment is a well worn one in the technology sector. Twenty years ago, Google’s search engine rapidly rose to monopolistic dominance because of its transformative information retrieval capability. Over time, the company’s dependence on revenue from search advertising led them to degrade that capability. Today, many observers look forward to the death of the search paradigm entirely. Amazon has walked the same path, from honest marketplace to one riddled with lousy products whose vendors have paid to have the company show them to you. We can do better than this. If each of us are going to have an AI assistant helping us with essential activities daily and even advocating on our behalf, we each need to know that it has our interests in mind. Building trustworthy AI will require systemic change.
First, a trustworthy AI system must be controllable by the user. That means that the model should be able to run on a user’s owned electronic devices (perhaps in a simplified form) or within a cloud service that they control. It should show the user how it responds to them, such as when it makes queries to search the web or external services, when it directs other software to do things like sending an email on a user’s behalf, or modifies the user’s prompts to better express what the company that made it thinks the user wants. It should be able to explain its reasoning to users and cite its sources. These requirements are all well within the technical capabilities of AI systems.
Furthermore, users should be in control of the data used to train and fine-tune the AI system. When modern LLMs are built, they are first trained on massive, generic corpora of textual data typically sourced from across the Internet. Many systems go a step further by fine-tuning on more specific datasets purpose built for a narrow application, such as speaking in the language of a medical doctor, or mimicking the manner and style of their individual user. In the near future, corporate AIs will be routinely fed your data, probably without your awareness or your consent. Any trustworthy AI system should transparently allow users to control what data it uses.
Many of us would welcome an AI-assisted writing application fine tuned with knowledge of which edits we have accepted in the past and which we did not. We would be more skeptical of a chatbot knowledgeable about which of their search results led to purchases and which did not.
You should also be informed of what an AI system can do on your behalf. Can it access other apps on your phone, and the data stored with them? Can it retrieve information from external sources, mixing your inputs with details from other places you may or may not trust? Can it send a message in your name (hopefully based on your input)? Weighing these types of risks and benefits will become an inherent part of our daily lives as AI-assistive tools become integrated with everything we do.
Realistically, we should all be preparing for a world where AI is not trustworthy. Because AI tools can be so incredibly useful, they will increasingly pervade our lives, whether we trust them or not. Being a digital citizen of the next quarter of the twenty-first century will require learning the basic ins and outs of LLMs so that you can assess their risks and limitations for a given use case. This will better prepare you to take advantage of AI tools, rather than be taken advantage by them.
In the world’s first few months of widespread use of models like ChatGPT, we’ve learned a lot about how AI creates risks for users. Everyone has heard by now that LLMs “hallucinate,” meaning that they make up “facts” in their outputs, because their predictive text generation systems are not constrained to fact check their own emanations. Many users learned in March that information they submit as prompts to systems like ChatGPT may not be kept private after a bug revealed users’ chats. Your chat histories are stored in systems that may be insecure.
Researchers have found numerous clever ways to trick chatbots into breaking their safety controls; these work largely because many of the “rules” applied to these systems are soft, like instructions given to a person, rather than hard, like coded limitations on a product’s functions. It’s as if we are trying to keep AI safe by asking it nicely to drive carefully, a hopeful instruction, rather than taking away its keys and placing definite constraints on its abilities.
These risks will grow as companies grant chatbot systems more capabilities. OpenAI is providing developers wide access to build tools on top of GPT: tools that give their AI systems access to your email, to your personal account information on websites, and to computer code. While OpenAI is applying safety protocols to these integrations, it’s not hard to imagine those being relaxed in a drive to make the tools more useful. It seems likewise inevitable that other companies will come along with less bashful strategies for securing AI market share.
Just like with any human, building trust with an AI will be hard won through interaction over time. We will need to test these systems in different contexts, observe their behavior, and build a mental model for how they will respond to our actions. Building trust in that way is only possible if these systems are transparent about their capabilities, what inputs they use and when they will share them, and whose interests they are evolving to represent.
This essay was written with Nathan Sanders, and previously appeared on Gizmodo.com.
Reuters is reporting that the FBI “had identified and disabled malware wielded by Russia’s FSB security service against an undisclosed number of American computers, a move they hoped would deal a death blow to one of Russia’s leading cyber spying programs.”
The headline says that the FBI “sabotaged” the malware, which seems to be wrong.
Presumably we will learn more soon.
EDITED TO ADD: New York Times story.
EDITED TO ADD: Maybe “sabotaged” is the right word. The FBI hacked the malware so that it disabled itself.
Despite the bravado of its developers, Snake is among the most sophisticated pieces of malware ever found, the FBI said. The modular design, custom encryption layers, and high-caliber quality of the code base have made it hard if not impossible for antivirus software to detect. As FBI agents continued to monitor Snake, however, they slowly uncovered some surprising weaknesses. For one, there was a critical cryptographic key with a prime length of just 128 bits, making it vulnerable to factoring attacks that expose the secret key. This weak key was used in Diffie-Hellman key exchanges that allowed each infected machine to have a unique key when communicating with another machine.
Another nation-state malware, Russian in origin:
In the early stages of the war in Ukraine in 2022, PIPEDREAM, a known malware was quietly on the brink of wiping out a handful of critical U.S. electric and liquid natural gas sites. PIPEDREAM is an attack toolkit with unmatched and unprecedented capabilities developed for use against industrial control systems (ICSs).
The malware was built to manipulate the network communication protocols used by programmable logic controllers (PLCs) leveraged by two critical producers of PLCs for ICSs within the critical infrastructure sector, Schneider Electric and OMRON.
At DEF CON this year, Anthropic, Google, Hugging Face, Microsoft, NVIDIA, OpenAI and Stability AI will all open up their models for attack.
The DEF CON event will rely on an evaluation platform developed by Scale AI, a California company that produces training for AI applications. Participants will be given laptops to use to attack the models. Any bugs discovered will be disclosed using industry-standard responsible disclosure practices.
The viral video of the “Mediterranean beef squid”is a hoax.
It’s not even a deep fake; it’s a plastic toy.
As usual, you can also use this squid post to talk about the security stories in the news that I haven’t covered.
Read my blog posting guidelines here.
Earlier this week, the Republican National Committee released a video that it claims was “built entirely with AI imagery.” The content of the ad isn’t especially novel—a dystopian vision of America under a second term with President Joe Biden—but the deliberate emphasis on the technology used to create it stands out: It’s a “Daisy” moment for the 2020s.
We should expect more of this kind of thing. The applications of AI to political advertising have not escaped campaigners, who are already “pressure testing” possible uses for the technology. In the 2024 presidential election campaign, you can bank on the appearance of AI-generated personalized fundraising emails, text messages from chatbots urging you to vote, and maybe even some deepfaked campaign avatars. Future candidates could use chatbots trained on data representing their views and personalities to approximate the act of directly connecting with people. Think of it like a whistle-stop tour with an appearance in every living room. Previous technological revolutions—railroad, radio, television, and the World Wide Web—transformed how candidates connect to their constituents, and we should expect the same from generative AI. This isn’t science fiction: The era of AI chatbots standing in as avatars for real, individual people has already begun, as the journalist Casey Newton made clear in a 2016 feature about a woman who used thousands of text messages to create a chatbot replica of her best friend after he died.
The key is interaction. A candidate could use tools enabled by large language models, or LLMs—the technology behind apps such as ChatGPT and the art-making DALL-E—to do micro-polling or message testing, and to solicit perspectives and testimonies from their political audience individually and at scale. The candidates could potentially reach any voter who possesses a smartphone or computer, not just the ones with the disposable income and free time to attend a campaign rally. At its best, AI could be a tool to increase the accessibility of political engagement and ease polarization. At its worst, it could propagate misinformation and increase the risk of voter manipulation. Whatever the case, we know political operatives are using these tools. To reckon with their potential now isn’t buying into the hype—it’s preparing for whatever may come next.
On the positive end, and most profoundly, LLMs could help people think through, refine, or discover their own political ideologies. Research has shown that many voters come to their policy positions reflexively, out of a sense of partisan affiliation. The very act of reflecting on these views through discourse can change, and even depolarize, those views. It can be hard to have reflective policy conversations with an informed, even-keeled human discussion partner when we all live within a highly charged political environment; this is a role almost custom-designed for LLM. In US politics, it is a truism that the most valuable resource in a campaign is time. People are busy and distracted. Campaigns have a limited window to convince and activate voters. Money allows a candidate to purchase time: TV commercials, labor from staffers, and fundraising events to raise even more money. LLMs could provide campaigns with what is essentially a printing press for time.
If you were a political operative, which would you rather do: play a short video on a voter’s TV while they are folding laundry in the next room, or exchange essay-length thoughts with a voter on your candidate’s key issues? A staffer knocking on doors might need to canvass 50 homes over two hours to find one voter willing to have a conversation. OpenAI charges pennies to process about 800 words with its latest GPT-4 model, and that cost could fall dramatically as competitive AIs become available. People seem to enjoy interacting with chatbots; Open’s product reportedly has the fastest-growing user base in the history of consumer apps.
Optimistically, one possible result might be that we’ll get less annoyed with the deluge of political ads if their messaging is more usefully tailored to our interests by AI tools. Though the evidence for microtargeting’s effectiveness is mixed at best, some studies show that targeting the right issues to the right people can persuade voters. Expecting more sophisticated, AI-assisted approaches to be more consistently effective is reasonable. And anything that can prevent us from seeing the same 30-second campaign spot 20 times a day seems like a win.
AI can also help humans effectuate their political interests. In the 2016 US presidential election, primitive chatbots had a role in donor engagement and voter-registration drives: simple messaging tasks such as helping users pre-fill a voter-registration form or reminding them where their polling place is. If it works, the current generation of much more capable chatbots could supercharge small-dollar solicitations and get-out-the-vote campaigns.
And the interactive capability of chatbots could help voters better understand their choices. An AI chatbot could answer questions from the perspective of a candidate about the details of their policy positions most salient to an individual user, or respond to questions about how a candidate’s stance on a national issue translates to a user’s locale. Political organizations could similarly use them to explain complex policy issues, such as those relating to the climate or health care or…anything, really.
Of course, this could also go badly. In the time-honored tradition of demagogues worldwide, the LLM could inconsistently represent the candidate’s views to appeal to the individual proclivities of each voter.
In fact, the fundamentally obsequious nature of the current generation of large language models results in them acting like demagogues. Current LLMs are known to hallucinate—or go entirely off-script—and produce answers that have no basis in reality. These models do not experience emotion in any way, but some research suggests they have a sophisticated ability to assess the emotion and tone of their human users. Although they weren’t trained for this purpose, ChatGPT and its successor, GPT-4, may already be pretty good at assessing some of their users’ traits—say, the likelihood that the author of a text prompt is depressed. Combined with their persuasive capabilities, that means that they could learn to skillfully manipulate the emotions of their human users.
This is not entirely theoretical. A growing body of evidence demonstrates that interacting with AI has a persuasive effect on human users. A study published in February prompted participants to co-write a statement about the benefits of social-media platforms for society with an AI chatbot configured to have varying views on the subject. When researchers surveyed participants after the co-writing experience, those who interacted with a chatbot that expressed that social media is good or bad were far more likely to express the same view than a control group that didn’t interact with an “opinionated language model.”
For the time being, most Americans say they are resistant to trusting AI in sensitive matters such as health care. The same is probably true of politics. If a neighbor volunteering with a campaign persuades you to vote a particular way on a local ballot initiative, you might feel good about that interaction. If a chatbot does the same thing, would you feel the same way? To help voters chart their own course in a world of persuasive AI, we should demand transparency from our candidates. Campaigns should have to clearly disclose when a text agent interacting with a potential voter—through traditional robotexting or the use of the latest AI chatbots—is human or automated.
Though companies such as Meta (Facebook’s parent company) and Alphabet (Google’s) publish libraries of traditional, static political advertising, they do so poorly. These systems would need to be improved and expanded to accommodate user-level differentiation in ad copy to offer serviceable protection against misuse.
A public, anonymized log of chatbot conversations could help hold candidates’ AI representatives accountable for shifting statements and digital pandering. Candidates who use chatbots to engage voters may not want to make all transcripts of those conversations public, but their users could easily choose to share them. So far, there is no shortage of people eager to share their chat transcripts, and in fact, an online database exists of nearly 200,000 of them. In the recent past, Mozilla has galvanized users to opt into sharing their web data to study online misinformation.
We also need stronger nationwide protections on data privacy, as well as the ability to opt out of targeted advertising, to protect us from the potential excesses of this kind of marketing. No one should be forcibly subjected to political advertising, LLM-generated or not, on the basis of their Internet searches regarding private matters such as medical issues. In February, the European Parliament voted to limit political-ad targeting to only basic information, such as language and general location, within two months of an election. This stands in stark contrast to the US, which has for years failed to enact federal data-privacy regulations. Though the 2018 revelation of the Cambridge Analytica scandal led to billions of dollars in fines and settlements against Facebook, it has so far resulted in no substantial legislative action.
Transparency requirements like these are a first step toward oversight of future AI-assisted campaigns. Although we should aspire to more robust legal controls on campaign uses of AI, it seems implausible that these will be adopted in advance of the fast-approaching 2024 general presidential election.
Credit the RNC, at least, with disclosing that their recent ad was AI-generated—a transparent attempt at publicity still counts as transparency. But what will we do if the next viral AI-generated ad tries to pass as something more conventional?
As we are all being exposed to these rapidly evolving technologies for the first time and trying to understand their potential uses and effects, let’s push for the kind of basic transparency protection that will allow us to know what we’re dealing with.
This essay was written with Nathan Sanders, and previously appeared on the Atlantic.
EDITED TO ADD (5/12): Better article on the “daisy” ad.
New reporting from Wired reveals that the Department of Justice detected the SolarWinds attack six months before Mandiant detected it in December 2020, but didn’t realize what it detected—and so ignored it.
WIRED can now confirm that the operation was actually discovered by the DOJ six months earlier, in late May 2020—but the scale and significance of the breach wasn’t immediately apparent. Suspicions were triggered when the department detected unusual traffic emanating from one of its servers that was running a trial version of the Orion software suite made by SolarWinds, according to sources familiar with the incident. The software, used by system administrators to manage and configure networks, was communicating externally with an unfamiliar system on the internet. The DOJ asked the security firm Mandiant to help determine whether the server had been hacked. It also engaged Microsoft, though it’s not clear why the software maker was also brought onto the investigation.
Investigators suspected the hackers had breached the DOJ server directly, possibly by exploiting a vulnerability in the Orion software. They reached out to SolarWinds to assist with the inquiry, but the company’s engineers were unable to find a vulnerability in their code. In July 2020, with the mystery still unresolved, communication between investigators and SolarWinds stopped. A month later, the DOJ purchased the Orion system, suggesting that the department was satisfied that there was no further threat posed by the Orion suite, the sources say.
EDITED TO ADD (5/4): More details about the SolarWinds attack from Wired.com.
Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.