Source: TechCrunch | March 2019
Author: Greg Epstein
The attention economy, Twitter, reverse censorship, and fighting AI for our human future
James Williams may not be a household name yet in most tech circles, but he will be.
For this second in what will be a regular series of conversations exploring the ethics of the technology industry, I was delighted to be able to turn to one of our current generation’s most important young philosophers of tech.
Around a decade ago, Williams won the Founder’s Award, Google’s highest honor for its employees. Then in 2017, he won an even rarer award, this time for his scorching criticism of the entire digital technology industry in which he had worked so successfully. The inaugural winner of Cambridge University’s $100,000 “Nine Dots Prize” for original thinking, Williams was recognized for the fruits of his doctoral research at Oxford University, on how “digital technologies are making all forms of politics worth having impossible, as they privilege our impulses over our intentions and are designed to exploit our psychological vulnerabilities in order to direct us toward goals that may or may not align with our own.” In 2018, he published his brilliantly written book Stand Out of Our Light, an instant classic in the field of tech ethics.
In an in-depth conversation by phone and email, edited below for length and clarity, Williams told me about how and why our attention is under profound assault. At one point, he points out that the artificial intelligence which beat the world champion at the game Go is now aimed squarely — and rather successfully — at beating us, or at least convincing us to watch more YouTube videos and stay on our phones a lot longer than we otherwise would. And while most of us have sort of observed and lamented this phenomenon, Williams believes the consequences of things like smartphone compulsion could be much more dire and widespread than we realize, ultimately putting billions of people in profound danger while testing our ability to even have a human will.
It’s a chilling prospect, and yet somehow, if you read to the end of the interview, you’ll see Williams manages to end on an inspiring and hopeful note. Enjoy!
Editor’s note: this interview is approximately 5,500 words / 25 minutes read time. The first third has been ungated given the importance of this subject. To read the whole interview, be sure to join the Extra Crunch membership. ~ Danny Crichton
Introduction and background
Greg Epstein: I want to know more about your personal story. You grew up in West Texas. Then you found yourself at Google, where you won the Founder’s Award, Google’s highest honor. Then at some point you realized, “I’ve got to get out of here.” What was that journey like?
James Williams: This is going to sound neater and more intentional than it actually was, as is the case with most stories. In a lot of ways my life has been a ping-ponging back and forth between tech and the humanities, trying to bring them into some kind of conversation.
I spent my formative years in a town called Abilene, Texas, where my father was a university professor. It’s the kind of place where you get the day off school when the rodeo comes to town. Lots of good people there. But it’s not exactly a tech hub. Most of my tech education consisted of spending late nights, and full days in the summer, up in the university computer lab with my younger brother just messing around on the fast connection there. Later when I went to college, I started studying computer engineering, but I found that I had this itch about the broader “why” questions that on some deeper level I needed to scratch. So I changed my focus to literature.