5 questions for Meredith Whittaker - POLITICO
Hello, and welcome to this week’s installment of The Future in Five Questions. This week I spoke with Meredith Whittaker, president of the Signal Foundation and co-founder of the AI Now Institute, which is dedicated to researching AI’s social impact. Whittaker has emerged as a leading critic of the influence major Silicon Valley firms wield over American life and public policy, writing in a 2021 paper that modern AI advances are “primarily the product of significantly concentrated data and compute resources that reside in the hands of a few large tech corporations,” and that “our increasing reliance on such AI cedes inordinate power over our lives and institutions to a handful of tech firms.”
We discussed how little the public understands the political economy of Washington’s relationship with Silicon Valley, the extent to which venture capital directs how Americans relate to tech, and the visionary writing of the late Canadian researcher Ursula Franklin. An edited and condensed version of the conversation follows:
What’s one underrated big idea?
We need to recognize the current paradigm of large scale artificial intelligence as a product of concentrated power in the tech industry, and we need to trace that history back to the moves that were made in the 1990s where unfettered surveillance became the engine of the tech industry’s business model. That enabled the creation of a handful of large firms that now have the resources necessary to produce artificial intelligence, those capital-intensive resources being computational power and data.
These are two sides of the same issue around the surveillance business model, the concentration of surveillance power, and the affordances it imparts to a handful of companies. I would point to a recent piece that we published on the Signal blog that offers a cross-section of that model and gives a sense of both how profitable and how costly it is, and thus offers a material explanation of why there are so few alternatives to the large companies producing most consumer technology. These are of course also the firms dominating the AI industry.
What’s a technology that you think is overhyped?
I’m going to give a sideways answer to this, which is that the venture capital business model needs to be understood as requiring hype. You can go back to the Netscape IPO, and that was the proof point that made venture capital the financial lifeblood of the tech industry.
Venture capital looks at valuations and growth, not necessarily at profit or revenue. So you don’t actually have to invest in technology that works, or that even makes a profit, you simply have to have a narrative that is compelling enough to float those valuations. So you see this repetitive and exhausting hype cycle as a feature in this industry. A couple of years ago, you would have been asking me about the metaverse, then last year, you would have asked me about Web3 and crypto, and for each of these inflection points there’s an Andreessen Horowitz manifesto.
It’s not simply that one piece of technology is overhyped, it’s that hype is a necessary ingredient of the current business ecosystem of the tech industry. We should examine how often the financial incentive for hype is rewarded without any real social returns, without any meaningful progress in technology, without these tools and services and worlds ever actually manifesting. That’s key to understanding the growing chasm between the narrative of techno-optimists and the reality of our tech-encumbered world.