Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales says AI is a ‘mess’ now but could become superhuman in 50 years

Jimmy Wales tells Euronews Next about the “terrible” early stages of ChatGPT, the lesson for OpenAI, and about his open-source social media platform.

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ChatGPT, the wildly popular generative artificial intelligence (AI) tool from OpenAI, is currently a “mess” when it’s used to write articles on Wikipedia, the platform’s founder Jimmy Wales tells Euronews Next.

A Wikipedia article written today with ChatGPT-4 is “terrible” and “doesn’t work at all,” he says, because it “really misses out on a lot and it get things wrong, and it gets things wrong in a plausible way and it makes up sources and it’s a mess”.

He even goes as far as to predict that superhuman AI could take at least 50 years to achieve.

But while he believes it is possible for AI to surpass humans in the distant future, it is more likely that AI tools will continue to support intellectual activities, despite being in an early phase at the moment, he says.

The most valuable start-up in the United States, OpenAI catapulted onto the scene with its chatbot ChatGPT last year.

The technology takes instruction and questions and answers them with an eerily human-like response based on sources it gathers online. It can be used for writing essays, song lyrics, or even health advice, though it can often get the information wrong, known as “hallucinating”.

But even the most powerful chatbot AI start-up was thrown into chaos with the ousting of its CEO and co-founder Sam Altman last week and then his rehiring just days later after employees threatened the board they would quit en masse.

Wales said it is “worrisome” that this occurred for such an influential company but that it will “probably pass as if nothing happened”.

If anything, he said the company will likely get its house in order and that it is “a good lesson to start-ups of all kinds that you really do have to think even at a very early stage about governance, about the stability of decision making”.

Wikipedia and AI working together

Despite his criticism of current generative AI models, Wales has not ruled out AI being used for Wikipedia.

He said if a tool were built to find mistakes in a Wikipedia article by comparing it to the sources it uses, it could help to iron out inaccuracies.

He even told Euronews Next that he would consider a Wikipedia venture with an open-source AI company that is freely usable to match Wikipedia’s principles, but clarified there is nothing specific in the works.

However, he says that this would be a decision that would not be taken lightly.

“Most businesses, not just charities like us, would say you have to be really, really careful if you’re going to put at the heart of your business a technology that’s controlled by someone else because if they go in a different direction, your whole business may be at risk,” he said.

He would therefore think carefully about any partnerships but added that he was open to pilot programmes and testing models.

Wikipedia is still essential to generative AI as it sources information published online to produce content. Therefore, the online encyclopedia must be accurate and not produce bias, something that both AI and Wikipedia have been accused of.

To create a gender balance and combat disinformation, Wikipedia has its own army of “Wikipedians” who are mostly male volunteer editors. Wales said that Wikipedians can see the difference between fake websites and can easily tell if the text was written by a human.

But bias is much harder to tackle as it can be historical; for instance, there were fewer female scientists in the 19th century and not much was written about them at the time, meaning Wikipedians cannot write that much about them. Or it can be unconscious bias, whereby a 28-year-old tech nerd Wikipedian may have different interests compared to a 55-year-old mother.

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Diversity is key in trying to combat bias, something the company is striving to achieve.

“It’s a real problem and obviously we feel a heavy responsibility to the extent that the world depends on Wikipedia and AI models depend on Wikipedia,” he said.

“We don’t want to teach robots to be biased, so we want to get it right as at the sort of the human heart of the whole thing”.

The beef with Elon Musk

Disinformation and online hate have been a grievance for Wales and one that has led to blows with the X (formerly Twitter) boss Elon Musk, who offered $1 billion (€915 million) for Wikipedia to change its name to “Dickipedia”.

Wales has never responded to Musk’s comment as he said it did not need an answer. “Everybody looks at that and says, “Are you 12-years-old, Elon?'” he told Euronews Next.

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The $1 billion offer came after Wales criticised Musk for laying off moderation staff at X, which the Wikipedia chief said had increased all kinds of serious racism and toxic behaviour on the platform and is likely to affect advertising revenue.

“You can’t both run a toxic platform and expect advertisers to give you money, so that might change things,” Wales said, adding that he and Musk are “friendly” and do text and that the exchanges are “pleasant”.

He said he still uses X but has deleted the app from his phone, which has made his life “much better” as he can do other things that are less toxic.

His own social media experiment

Wales has launched his own social network platform which he says has a “completely different” approach to X.

At this year’s Web Summit, Wales announced the beta version of his project called Trust Cafe, a new online community he says will give power to its most trusted members.

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First revealed in September, he describes it as his experiment in a friendly and open-source social media platform that he is not taking too seriously as a business venture.

He called it a cross between X and Reddit, where you can discuss certain topics but are not limited to a certain number of characters and there is not one sole owner of a discussion.

“Reddit is both fantastic and horrible. Whereas we’re really pursuing a model that’s much more the governance is across everything,” said Wales.

While he admits online hate and toxic behaviour will always occur within some users, he is optimistic.

“If you’ve got basically sensible people who have enough power, you’ll get a basically sensible platform and there’s always going to be somebody crazy. There’s always going to be some debate that turns a little ugly. That’s just human nature,” said Wales.

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“But as long as you can keep the main thrust of it in a healthy channel, then you can have like a really interesting kind of open platform where people can really genuinely engage with ideas”.