The Grill: WikiScanner creator Virgil Griffith

The tech provocateur talks about exposing the wicked, staying out of trouble and designing machines that can feel.

Virgil Griffith is a doctoral candidate in computation and neural systems at the California Institute of Technology. He has been called a troublemaker, twerp, agitator and provocateur. As a teenager, he tried to sue his school over a drug-testing policy. Later, he was sued by Blackboard Inc. for exposing flaws in its campus ID software system. Griffith is perhaps best known as the creator of WikiScanner, which makes it possible to figure out who has made edits to a Wikipedia entry.

What are you working on now? The Tor2Web project I've been working on with [friend] Aaron Swartz is potentially a really big deal, but people don't understand it. People are familiar with Tor and how it allows you to access Web sites anonymously. I can search Google without Google knowing who I am.

OK, everybody knows that. What they don't know is that there's this very obscure feature which allows you to host a site within Tor itself. If you're on Tor and want to access a Web site not on Tor, it "anonymizes" your connection. If both Web sites are on Tor, it anonymizes both sides. It's a very bizarre way to work. It's the online equivalent of meeting in a dark alley. That's interesting. I have no idea what will happen, but it will be really exciting.

WikiScanner makes it possible to figure out who has edited Wikipedia entries. Was that what you set out to do? The tongue-in-cheek answer is that WikiScanner was created to create minor public disasters for organizations I don't like. I got the idea from seeing that congressmen were caught hiring staffers to whitewash Wikipedia pages. My thought was, let's just nip this in the bud. Let's just stop this behavior that is egregious and totally unacceptable. Everybody knew that companies were editing their own pages. I thought it was utterly hilarious to have them all exposed, to have them completely powerless and caught with their skirts up.

Don't you think it's ironic that a former hacker whose current project is creating anonymity on the Internet once helped police Internet behavior? Yeah, I really like the irony in that. But I'm no official authority. I have no role; I just do my own thing. Actually, I don't do these things. I make tools that allow other people to do these things. This is the only way I'm able to stay on the good side of everything. With WikiScanner, all the crazy liberal and conservative blogs were all just so excited to avenge their evil enemies. If I did all the [work myself], they would have said, "Oh, that's just Virgil." People wouldn't have been so happy.

Why is it important to you to stay on everybody's good side? Then I don't go to jail.

Were you headed there? Actually yes. There [could have been] federal jail time with the Blackboard thing. I was young back then, and now I'm more clueful about how to do things. I'm more subtle; I avoid doing things that will get me sued. It's just growing up.

Your goal is to create a machine that would feel grateful to you for designing it. What else would the machine feel and do? The reason I'm in graduate school now is to create conscious machines that can feel. That's my thesis. Technically speaking, [the machine] is just like us. We are machines that can feel. Machines that can feel technically are just like us, but better understood. [The idea of] machines that feel is really not all that weird or alien. You feel things for them, and they feel things for you. I spend most of the day doing theory work on trying to quantify the complexity of neural systems, and that's really math-y, and I really suck at math. In school, my best subjects were philosophy and writing.

What do you do when you're not working? I like eating Thai food a lot, and I enjoy going to the edgy-crazy art exhibits in Los Angeles. As far as work, I spend most of my time either doing academic stuff in information theory or spending time making the Internet a better and more interesting place.

What is the relationship between creativity and innovation? I view creativity as analogy-making. You have some existing parts. Part A is in front of you, and you say this is a little like Part B and perhaps I can combine them the same way. It's a kind of spontaneous analogy-forming. Also, I guess innovation would be a subset of creativity because there's a lot of creative things that don't go anywhere. You have to have one to have the other.

You're a self-described "disruptive" technologist. Is technology innovation disruptive by nature? Certainly, the big innovations have to be disruptive. [There's also a balance] between innovation and quality assurance. The kind of work I do is much closer to the innovation that is about quality assurance. In fact, I usually have people look over all of my code and everything I do. I guess it's up to each manager where you want to draw the line. If you want things checked all the time, things will progress really slowly and you'll probably lose. If you're a crazy Web 2.0 company and your server is down all the time, that's not going to work either. It's up to each manager how much creativity they can stomach.

How can companies engender more innovation? Google has the 20% project, which is one of the best ideas I have ever heard of. Google employees above a certain rank are given one day a week off to work on anything Google-related, and most of the new Google services and really hip ideas are coming out of there. If you want faster creativity and innovation, the idea of the 20% project is going in the right direction.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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