Intelligence is not Artificial

Why the Singularity is not Coming any Time Soon And Other Meditations on the Post-Human Condition and the Future of Intelligence

by piero scaruffi
Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence | Bibliography and book reviews | My book on consciousness | Contact/feedback/email

(These are excerpts from my book "Intelligence is not Artificial")

Appendix: The Dangers of Clouding - Wikipedia as a Force for Evil

Since 2001, when Jimmy Wales started it, Wikipedia has grown to become the largest cooperative project in the history of the world, with 39 million articles in 250 languages (as of 2013). The jury, however, is still out on whether Wikipedia is a force for good or a force for evil.

The traditional debate over Wikipedia has focused on how much we can trust thousands of anonymous editors as opposed to the small team of highly decorated scholars who curate the traditional encyclopedia. Since scholars and erudite people in general are less likely to get into a brawl, the fear was that in the long run the "mob" would win, the frequent outcome in many facets of popular culture. That was pretty much the only concern when Wikipedia was just that: a substitute for the encyclopedia.

However, the Internet is not a bookshelf. Those who treat the Internet like a bookshelf miss the point about its impact, which is not just to replace existing objects and services.

In mid 2010 i searched Wikipedia for biographies of the main politicians and consistently found adulatory comments, even for those who have been responsible for blatant violation of human rights. In my research for my book on Silicon Valley i flipped through thousands of Wikipedia pages about companies and individuals: the vast majority were simply the equivalent of press releases worded according to the current business strategy of the company or according to the whims of the individual. In late 2010 the article on Feminism presented Mohammed (the founder of Islam) as the first major feminist in the history of the world. In February 2011 the article on detective fiction mentioned the medieval Arabian collection of stories "One Thousand and One Nights" as the first suspenseful book. Wikipedia pages on albums and films routinely describe them with a "Response from the critics was generally positive" comment, completely omitting the devastating reviews published by reliable critics. Obviously, these were all cases in which someone with a specific agenda was trying to influence the millions of people who rely on Wikipedia.

I started noticing a disturbing fact: the popularity of Wikipedia is de facto obliterating all the alternative sources that one could use to doublecheck Wikipedia articles. A search on any major topic routinely returns a Wikipedia page in the first two or three lines. The other lines in the first page of results are almost inevitably commercial in nature. In order to find a scholarly page that can prove or disprove the Wikipedia page, one has to flip through several pages of results. Very few people make the effort. Therefore Wikipedia is rapidly becoming the only source of information about any major topic. Maybe this is acceptable for scientific topics (although i would still prefer that my Quantum Physics and Cellular Biology came from someone who has signed the article with her/his name and affiliation) but it is dangerous for topics that are "politicized" in nature. Then Wikipedia becomes the only source that millions of people access to find out what a politician, a government or a company has done. Worse: every topic can be "politicized" to some extent. I found references to the Bible and the Quran in articles about scientific topics. No traditional encyclopedia and no academic textbook in the free world would reference the Bible or the Quran to explain Quantum Mechanics or Cellular Biology. Precisely because it is edited by the general public, Wikipedia lends itself to a global politicization of every topic. It is an illusion that Wikipedians carry out "anonymous and collaborative editing": the very nature of Wikipedia encourages people to avoid collaboration and instead to leak ideological agendas into encyclopedia pages. The "collaboration" of which Wikipedia boasts is the fact that someone can retaliate to an opinionated or biased statement by removing or altering that statement and maybe inserting one that leans in the opposite direction; but a brawl is a very loose definition of "collaboration".

That danger is very visible in the rapid decline of quality. Like any corporation that has to hide its own shortcomings, Wikipedia boasts study after study that shows Wikipedia to be as accurate and more complete than the Encyclopedia Britannica. This is true only if one ignores semantics. In reality, there has never been and never will be a Britannica article that is simply the press release from a company or a doctored biography from a tyrannical government. If one considers the semantics, the gap between the accuracy of the traditional encyclopedia and the inaccuracy of Wikipedia is rapidly increasing.

The evil is, obviously, not coming from the founder or the staff. It originates from the success itself of Wikipedia. According to a diagram from a 2011 presentation by Zack Exley that i attended, the number of senior (unpaid) Wikipedia editors rapidly reached 60,000 and has declined a bit during the Great Recession. That number, of course, does not tell the whole story. The meaningful number is the number of pages that an average unpaid editor has to maintain. In 2003 (just before the Wikipedia explosion) there were less than 200,000 articles and about 60,000 editors: on average three pages per senior editor. In 2010 the number of editors declined to 50,000 while the number of articles in English alone had increased to ten million (according to a diagram that is currently posted on the Wikipedia website (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:EnwikipediaArt.PNG): even assuming that all those 50,000 editors stick to Wikipedia's original philosophy (i'll say later why i don't believe it), that means 200 articles on average per editor.

Here is the bigger problem. When there were only a few thousand users, there was little interest from governments and corporations in what Wikipedia said. Now that there are millions of users and that the Wikipedia page is usually the first one presented by a search engine, the interest in determining what Wikipedia displays is enormous. There has been an undocumented explosion in the number of Wikipedia editors who are "paid" (either salaried or contracted) by governments, organizations, corporations and celebrities to twist the text of a Wikipedia article so that it represents the interest of that government, organization, corporation or celebrity.

When there were only a few thousand articles, it was relatively easy for the unpaid idealistic editors to control the content of Wikipedia. Now that there are millions of articles, it is simply impossible for those unpaid idealistic editors to control what the paid editors do. To make matters worse, Wikipedia covets the idea that editors have to be anonymous: therefore there is no way for an unpaid idealistic editor to know if another editor is unpaid or paid. It's like those horror movies in which there is no way for a human to know whether she is surrounded by humans or zombies.

Like any corporation that has to hide its own shortcomings, Wikipedia boasts that "In the month of July 2006, Wikipedia grew by over 30,000,000 words". But that's precisely the problem. That's precisely what is frightening. Many of those 30 million words may be written by unprofessional, biased and sometimes paid "editors" whose interest in creating an encyclopedia is much lower than their interest in promoting a viewpoint or serving their employer. This leaves less than 50,000 unpaid idealistic Wikipedia editors to fight against an increasing number of editors paid by government agencies, ideological organizations, corporations and celebrities, not to mention the thousands of occasional uninformed amateurs who want to shout their opinion to the world.

Needless to say, a government agency, an ideological organization, a corporation or a celebrity has more resources at its disposal, and is much more determined, than a hapless unpaid Wikipedian. Therefore their version of the facts will eventually win. No wonder that an increasing number of pages simply displays what the subject of the page wants people to read. It is pointless for an idealistic editor to fight against it: the corporation or organization interested in that page has overwhelming resources to win the fight. There is no "brawl" over the content of those pages because it would be pointless. The net result is that Wikipedia is inevitably being hijacked by entities whose goal is not to spread knowledge but to spread propaganda.

Furthermore, several governments around the world block Wikipedia webpages. In the Middle East we were not able to access pages about Israel and Islam. In mainland China we could not access just about any page about history, including my own website www.scaruffi.com However, the free world can view the pages that have been doctored by the Chinese government and by Islamic religious groups. Therefore there is a one-way flow of mental conditioning: "their" people cannot see our version of the facts, but we are increasingly exposed to "their" version of the facts as "they" become more and more active in editing Wikipedia pages. It is not difficult to predict who will win in the long run.

For government agencies, ideological organizations, corporations and celebrities Wikipedia has become a fantastic device to brainwash not only your own audience but all the people in the world.

Politically speaking, Wikipedia is de facto a force opposed to the change that social media foster. While Facebook and Twitter cannot be easily hijacked by authorities and corporations to brainwash people with distorted facts, Wikipedia can be and is being used precisely for that purpose by an increasing number of skilled and sinister "editors". Wikipedia can potentially become a force to stop change and promote repression, corruption, speculation and possibly genocide. Because they are so distributed and cannot be "edited", the voices expressed by Facebook and Twitter represent the voice of the people. The centralized Wikipedia, instead, is increasingly representing the voice of the oppressor; or, if you prefer, the oppressors are increasingly keen on appropriating Wikipedia.

In parallel, Wikipedia is having another detrimental effect on culture: it is sending out of business the only sources that we can use to verify Wikipedia's accuracy: the traditional encyclopedias. Compiling an encyclopedia is a colossal endeavor that requires the collective work of dozens of distinguished scholars. The cost for the publisher is enormous. In the age of Wikipedia no publisher is crazy enough to invest millions for an encyclopedia that will have to compete against the much bigger and absolutely free of charge Wikipedia. The age of encyclopedias that began in the Enlightenment is ending in the 21st century. In other words, the fact that Wikipedia is free has created a problem of historical proportions. Since no more encyclopedias will be produced, and any specialized website will be infinitely difficult to find using a search engine, society will have no way to determine if a Wikipedia article is telling the truth or not. There will be no second source where one can doublecheck a statement, a date, a story, let alone discuss the merits of who is represented on Wikipedia and who is not. Wikipedia is sending out of business the very sources that we use to determine Wikipedia's reliability and accuracy, the very sources that we used for centuries to determine the veracity of any statement. Wikipedia is not an encyclopedia, it is becoming a colossal accumulation of propaganda and gossip. The destruction of the traditional encyclopedia may send us back to the dark ages that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire.

 

P.S.

Things may be getting even more sinister as i write this book. Wikipedia's claim that anybody can edit an article is rapidly becoming an illusion: in reality, millions of IP addresses are banned from editing Wikipedia. A Stanford friend who added a link to a Wikipedia article (linking to this very article of mine) has never been able to edit articles again: Wikipedia displays an error message in which he is accused of "non constructive behavior". If this reminds you of totalitarian regimes, welcome to the world of Wikipedia. Wikipedia, by its own admission, keeps a detailed record of what every IP address in the world has written on which articles. And de facto Wikipedia bans from editing its pages those places (like libraries) that don't allow it to track down the identity of the person by the IP address. This is exactly what secret police like the KGB have always done in totalitarian regimes in which you are supposed to read (what they want you to read) but not to write (what you would like the world to read).

The usual objection to this comparison of mine is that Wikipedia editors are volunteers who do it just because they believe in the ideal. You'd be surprised how many members of the secret police in places like Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and today's Iran were and are fanatical volunteers who believed in the ideal of their totalitarian state and were willing to work for free to fight the enemies of the state. The real enemy is often not the dictator in charge but the fanatics who legitimize that dictator. Without those fanatical followers the totalitarian state would collapse.

Most users of Wikipedia have trouble accepting that Wikipedia is bad for humankind. They admit the limits and the potential harm, but would not want to erase it from the Web. My friend Federico Pistono, author of “Robots Will Steal Your Job, But That's OK” (2012), told me: "We just need to educate people on how to use it". My counter-suggestion: we should introduce more mistakes. It is important that the users of Wikipedia get "educated" to the idea that Wikipedia articles are typically biased articles written by whoever has more time and more money to continue editing them. In the interest of the truth, please change an article on the Nazi massacre of Jews in Poland so that "Warsaw" becomes "Acapulco" and "Hitler" becomes "Mickey Mouse". This way people will be aware that they cannot trust an anonymous Wikipedia article and they have to use other sources to doublecheck the content of Wikipedia articles. Sure: Wikipedia is useful to find out that Paris is the capital of France, and that the population of Nigeria is 173 million. It is very "useful" for many purposes. As long as we don't make excessive claims about its reliability: it is NOT an encyclopedia. At best, it is just a collection of the advice given by amateurs to amateurs, just like reviews on Yelp and Amazon. Many television shows, documentaries and Internet videos have been useful in raising awareness about world events, but (hopefully) people know that those shows are run by comedians, entertainers and amateurs. Because Wikipedia articles are anonymous, people are routinely misled into thinking that they were written by top authorities more reliable than comedians and entertainers. In many cases that is not true. In fact, i don't know a single scholar who has contributed to a Wikipedia article.

How about a big banner on every Wikipedia article that warns "Disclaimer: None of the texts published here was provided or verified by a competent scholar"? Just like we warn people that cigarettes cause cancer?

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