Meredith Whittaker, President of Signal, has learned what not to do from working at Google

Meredith Whittaker, a former Google exec who is now president of Signal. (Florian Hetz for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Florian Hetzt | The Washington Post | Getty Images

Meredith Whittaker took on a leading role in the Signal Foundation Last year he made the transition to the nonprofit world after a career in academia, government and technology.

She’s now President of an organization that runs one of the world’s most popular encrypted messaging apps, used by tens of millions of people to keep their chats private and out of the reach of big tech companies.

Whittaker has real reasons to be skeptical about for-profit companies and their use of data – having previously worked there for 13 years Google.

In 2017, after more than a decade at the search giant, she learned from a friend that Google’s cloud computing unit was working on a controversial contract with the Department of Defense known as Project Maven. She and other employees saw it as hypocritical that Google was working on artificial intelligence technologies that could potentially be used for drone warfare. They began discussing taking collective action against the company.

“People got together every week and talked about organizing,” Whittaker said in an interview with CNBC on the background of Women’s History Month. “There was already a kind of awareness in the company that didn’t exist before.”

It was with great tension that Google employees then learned that the company allegedly paid former manager Andy Rubin a $90 million exit package despite credible allegations of sexual misconduct against the Android founder.

Whittaker helped organize a massive strike against the company, bringing thousands of Google employees with him to demand more transparency and an end to forced employee arbitration. The strikes represented a historic moment in the tech industry, which until then had had few high-profile cases of employee activism.

“Give me a break,” Whittaker said of the Rubin revelations and the subsequent strike. “Everyone knew; the Whisper Network stopped whispering.”

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Whittaker left Google in 2019 to return full-time to New York University’s AI Now Institute, an organization she co-founded in 2017 whose mission is “to help make AI systems more meaningful to the communities and contexts in to whom they are deployed are accountable. requested again.”

Whittaker never intended to pursue a career in engineering. She studied rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley. She said she was broke and needed a job when she joined Google in 2006 after submitting a resume on She eventually got a temp job in customer service.

“I remember the moment someone explained to me that a server was a different kind of computer,” Whittaker said. “We didn’t live in a world at that point where every kid learned to code — that knowledge wasn’t saturated.”

‘Why are we getting free juice?’

In addition to learning technology, Whittaker had to adapt to the culture of the industry. At companies like Google, that meant lavish perks and plenty of pampering back then.

“Part of it was trying to figure out why we’re getting free juice?” Whittaker said. “It was so alien to me because I didn’t grow up rich.”

Whittaker said she would “osmotically learn more about the technology sector and Google’s role in it” by observing and asking questions. When told about Google’s mission to index the world’s information, she recalls that it sounded relatively simple, even though it involved numerous complexities and touched on political, economic and social issues.

“Why is Google so excited about net neutrality?” Whittaker said, citing the company’s fight to ensure internet service providers offer equal access to content distribution.

Several European telecom providers are Now they’re urging regulators to require tech companies to pay them “fair share fees,” while the tech industry says such costs constitute an “internet tax” that hits them unfairly.

“I think I learned the technological nuances and the political and economic stuff at the same time,” Whittaker said. “Now I understand the difference between what we say publicly and how that might work internally.”

At Signal, Whittaker can focus on his mission without worrying about selling. Signal has become so popular with journalists, researchers and activists for its ability to encrypt messages so that third parties cannot eavesdrop on communications.

As a nonprofit, Whittaker said Signal is “vitally important” to society and that there was no underlying financial motivation for the app to deviate from its stated position of protecting private communications.

“We try our best, sometimes spending a lot more money and a lot more time, to make sure we have as little data as possible,” Whittaker said. “We don’t know who’s talking to whom, we don’t know who you are, we don’t know your profile photo or who’s in the groups you’re talking to.”

Tesla and Twitter CEO Elon Musk has praised Signal as a direct messaging tool, tweeting in November that “the goal of Twitter DMs is to outperform Signal.”

Musk and Whittaker share some concerns about companies capitalizing on AI technologies. Musk was an early supporter of ChatGPT creators OpenAI, which was founded as a non-profit organization. But he said in a recent tweet that it has become a “maximum profit company effectively controlled by Microsoft.” In January, Microsoft announced a multi-billion dollar investment in OpenAI, which bills itself as a capped profit company.

OpenAI’s confusing structure aside, Whittaker is riding on the ChatGPT hype. Google recently entered the generative AI market and unveiled its chatbot called Bard.

Whittaker said she finds little value in the technology and struggles to see breakthrough uses. Eventually the excitement will subside, though “maybe not as abruptly as Web3 or something,” she said.

“It doesn’t understand anything at all,” Whittaker said of ChatGPT and similar tools. “It predicts what the next word in a sentence is likely to be.”

OpenAI did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

She worries companies could use generative AI software to “justify the degradation of people’s jobs,” which would result in writers, editors and content creators losing their careers. And she definitely wants people to know that Signal has absolutely no plans to integrate ChatGPT into its service.

“On the record, as loud as possible, no!” said Whittaker.

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