sxsw 2016

At SXSW: Wikipedia's Founder on Privacy, Diversity and Robots Writing Encyclopedia Entries

3 min read
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The online encyclopedia Wikipedia has helped usher humanity into a new digital age democratizing knowledge. At SXSW this past week, its founder Jimmy Wales sat down with Guy Kawasaki, chief evangelist of Canva, for a discussion about the future of the world’s largest encyclopedia and the pressures shaping it. Here are some of the highlights.

On the current showdown between Apple and the FBI
Kawasaki launched the panel with the Apple’s battle over smartphone backdoors and encryption. “I’m really proud of Apple for fighting this thing,” Wales said, but he encouraged both sides of the argument to see both positives of this legal battle. By taking the FBI to court and fighting back, Wales explained, Apple is publicly ensuring that all sides are truly doing the right thing. “The worst thing for a company to do in the face of something like this would be to just roll over and do it quietly,” he said.

On surveillance
Wikipedia is currently embroiled in an ongoing legal battle with the National Security Agency, who was exposed as surveilling users in the Edward Snowden leaks. “This has serious implications for freedom of expression,” he said. “The people who aren't involved in technology, who don’t come from from this world…trust the government to not abuse these powers. Given history, I think you would be foolish to trust governments to not abuse these powers.” To put a finer point on it he asked, to cheers: “Would you really trust Donald Trump with these powers?”

On the need for diversity
Wales said a lack of diversity in tech -- and at Wikipedia -- has huge impact. “We need more diversity in the community, not just for PC reasons and diversity, he said, but for better exploration of ideas and topics. He explained that Wikipedia entries currently reflect the strengths and expertise of its writers. Entries on USB standards, for example, are far superior to less techie topics such as early childhood development. A greater variety of writers can work together to create a more unified and useful experience for a wider population. Approachable software and a supportive community are key to breaking down barriers in creating diversity, Wales said.

On Artificial Intelligence
There could come a day when artificial intelligence is strong enough to write its own encyclopedia articles. Wales isn’t worried yet. “Google can’t even do a decent translation of something that’s already written, much less go from scratch,” he said, calling strong encyclopedia writing “among the very highest of human capacities.” But if it does happen? “Once computers can write encyclopedia articles, we’re close to a very different world and we have bigger things to worry about than writing Wikipedia,” he said. “if it happens in our lifetimes, we might live forever.”

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