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Mark Zuckerberg’s risky ‘AGI’ & ‘Hawaii’ bet

IFM_ Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg wants Meta's AGI to be a transparent and inclusive one, while mitigating issues surrounding the AI capabilities

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg is in the news again. His venture has now joined the race to turn the concept called Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) into a reality. Meta will be competing against San Francisco-based AI start-up OpenAI, which has already outlined its AGI plans.

Artificial General Intelligence is all about creating software with human-like intelligence and the ability to self-teach itself. The software should be able to perform tasks that the tool is not trained/developed for.

What Meta is up to?

Meta is training its next-gen model Llama 3, apart from building a massive computing infrastructure to support the company’s future roadmap on the AGI front.

AGI will have the ability to mimic human performance across tasks. Given the fact that this particular innovation will be the next holy grail of the tech sector, Meta wants to eat the pie when it is hot.

Given the fact that AGI will be mimicking human performance, critics have been uneasy. They are after Zuckerberg for taking an “irresponsible approach” to AGI. The tech boss’ detractors think that Meta may make AGI available to the public in future, which may lead to a situation where “AI will evade human control and eventually take over humanity.”

Dame Wendy Hall, a professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton, told The Guardian that the prospect of an open-source AGI was ‘very scary’. Hall, who is also a member of the United Nation’s advisory body on AI, also lashed out at Zuckerberg for playing around with the AGI, as she believed that the technology, if fell into the wrong hands, could do a great deal of harm.

However, Meta is going ahead with its plan, under which Nvidia’s H100 GPU chips will power the tech giant’s computing infrastructures for AGI-related projects. Zuckerberg wants Meta’s AGI to be a transparent and inclusive one, while mitigating issues surrounding the AI capabilities.

Criticism galore

David Thiel, a big data architect and chief technologist of the Stanford Internet Observatory, told RollingStone, “Honestly, the ‘general intelligence’ bit is just as vaporous as ‘the metaverse,” as he found Meta’s AGI claims a pretentious one, something which gives the venture “an argument that they’re being as transparent about the tech as possible. But any models they release publicly are going to be a small subset of what they actually use internally.”

Sarah Myers West, managing director of the research non-profit ‘AI Now Institute’, explained Zuckerberg’s announcement as something that “reads clearly like a PR tactic meant to garner goodwill, while obfuscating what’s likely a privacy-violating sprint to stay competitive in the AI game.” Myers, like Thiel, found the AGI pitch less than convincing.

Vincent Conitzer, director of the Foundations of Cooperative AI Lab at Carnegie Mellon University and head of technical AI engagement at the University of Oxford’s Institute for Ethics in AI, speculated that Meta could start with something like Llama and expand from there.

“I imagine that they will focus their attention on large language models, and will probably be going more in the multimodal direction, meaning making these systems capable with images, audio, video,” he said, while comparing Meta’s efforts with Google‘s Gemini, which got released in December 2023.

Conitzer, however, stated that while there were dangers to open-sourcing large language model-based technology, “The alternative of just developing these models behind the closed doors of profit-driven companies also raises problems.”

Experts are also flagging Meta’s not-so-good history on the privacy front.
“They have access to massive amounts of highly sensitive information about us, but we just don’t know whether or how they’re putting it to use as they invest in building models like Llama 2 and 3. Meta has proven time and time again it can’t be trusted with user data before you get to the endemic problems in LLMs with data leakage. I don’t know why we’d look the other way when they throw ‘open source’ and ‘AGI’ into the mix,” Sarah Myers West commented.

As per Conitzer, human civilisation is facing a future where AI systems like Meta’s have “ever more detailed models of individuals.”

“Maybe in the past, I shared some things publicly and I thought each of those things individually wasn’t harmful to share. But I didn’t realise that AI could draw connections between the various things that I posted, and the things that others posted, and that it would learn something about me that I really didn’t want out there,” he added further.

Remember the October 2023 Guardian article, which spoke about Meta had to argue in an Australian court, while fighting a case over the Cambridge Analytica breach, in which tens of millions of users’ data was harvested using a personality quiz and used to aid political campaigns, including former United States President Donald Trump’s election campaign in 2020.

In front of the Australian judge, the social media company had to state that private messages, pictures, email addresses and the content of Facebook users’ posts were not “sensitive information”.

Then in August 2023, X (rebranded Twitter) users shared screenshots of Threads’ (Meta’s newest flagship social media product) privacy policy from Apple’s App Store. Threads reportedly indicated gathering personal details from its users, ranging from health and financial data to browsing history and location, details which could be passed on to advertisers.

In another 2023 example, the European Union fined Meta a record $1.3 billion after finding the Facebook parent broke its privacy laws by transferring user data from Europe to the United States.

Just the above three examples are good enough to show that experts’ scepticism around Meta’s AGI efforts is not completely unfounded.

Zuckerberg’s Hawaii bet

“Off the two-lane highway that winds along the northeast side of the Hawaiian island of Kauai, on a quiet stretch of ranchland between the tourist hubs of Kapaa and Hanalei, an enormous, secret construction project is underway. A six-foot wall blocks the view from a nearby road fronting the project, where cars slow to try to catch a glimpse of what’s behind it. Security guards stand watch at an entrance gate and patrol the surrounding beaches on ATVs. Pickup trucks roll in and out, hauling building materials and transporting hundreds of workers,” reports the WIRED on a project, where (as per the news agency’s sources) the workers have been told to maintain utmost secrecy about what they are working on.

Nobody working on this project is allowed to talk about what they’re building. Almost anyone who passes compound security is bound by a strict nondisclosure agreement, according to several workers involved in the project. And, they say, these agreements aren’t a formality.

Multiple workers claim they saw or heard about colleagues removed from the project for posting about it on social media. Different construction crews within the site are assigned to separate projects and workers are forbidden from speaking with other crews about their work.

“The project is so huge that a not-insignificant share of the island is bound by the NDA. But everyone here knows who is behind it. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, who bought the land in a series of deals beginning in August 2014,” WIRED stated further, hinting at whose brainchild the ‘project’ might be.

WIRED, after interviewing several stakeholders associated with the ‘project’, apart from accessing public records and court documents, suggested that the roughly 1,400-acre compound, known as ‘Koolau Ranch’, will include a 5,000-square-foot underground shelter, have its own energy and food supplies, and, when coupled with land purchase prices, will cost in excess of $270 million. The project has been relying upon legal manoeuvring and political networking, apart from reportedly showing disregard for the local public’s concerns.

‘Koolau Ranch’ is located on Kauai, the oldest and smallest of the four main Hawaiian Islands. Kauai is a tight-knit community of about 73,000 people, who are mostly the descendants of Native Hawaiians, along with Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and Puerto Rican migrants who came to work the sugarcane plantations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“Some of the more recent arrivals come from the US mainland and other Pacific islands. When plantation owners moved their operations overseas in search of cheaper labour, the island’s sugarcane economy was replaced by tourism. Workers on the Zuckerberg site are part of a growing construction industry focused on luxury home builds for mainlanders looking to move to paradise,” The WIRED stated further.

“Tall tales about the compound and its owner run rampant on the local rumour mill—known colloquially as the ‘coconut wireless.’ One person heard that Zuckerberg was building a vast underground city. Many people speculate that the site will become some sort of post-apocalyptic bunker in case of civilisation collapse. What’s being built doesn’t live up to the coconut wireless chatter, but it’s close. Detailed planning documents obtained by WIRED through a series of public record requests show the makings of an opulent techno-Xanadu, complete with underground shelter and what appears to be a blast-resistant door,” the publication noted further.

The property is centred around two mansions with a total floor area comparable to a professional football field, while containing multiple elevators, offices, conference rooms, and an industrial-sized kitchen.

“In a nearby wooded area, a web of 11 disk-shaped tree houses are planned, which will be connected by intricate rope bridges, allowing visitors to cross from one building to the next while staying among the treetops. A building on the other side of the main mansions will include a full-size gym, pools, sauna, hot tub, cold plunge, and tennis court. The property is dotted with other guest houses and operations buildings. The scale of the project suggests that it will be more than a personal vacation home — Zuckerberg has already hosted two corporate events at the compound,” the report noted further.

“The plans show that the two central mansions will be joined by a tunnel that branches off into a 5,000-square-foot underground shelter, featuring living space, a mechanical room, and an escape hatch that can be accessed via a ladder,” WIRED stated, with one of its sources even narrating that there were cameras everywhere in the property, with more than 20 cameras are taking care of one smaller ranch operations building alone.

“Many of the compound’s doors are planned to be keypad-operated or soundproofed. Others, like those in the library, are described as ‘blind doors,’ made to imitate the design of the surrounding walls. The door in the underground shelter will be constructed out of metal and filled in with concrete—a style common in bunkers and bomb shelters,” WIRED continued further.

The compound will have its own water supply, along with a 1,400 acre agricultural property. The utmost secrecy around the project gives the impression as if the world is getting its next ‘Area 51’.

As per a Kauai journalist named Allan Parachini, publishing news on the ‘Koolau Ranch’ will result in the local press getting ‘reprimanded’. Throughout 2017, Parachini requested permits to know about the property. After his opinion piece on the ‘Koolau Ranch’, Parachini was informed by a ‘Local Zuckerberg Representative’ about the Meta CEO’s team ‘not communicating’ with the journalist for any future coverage.

Despite Meta’s chequered history with its data privacy practices, Zuckerberg is known for being a perfectionist, when it comes to protecting his privacy. In 2004, Zuckerberg reportedly requested that two student journalists sign an NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) before an interview. In 2010, when one of his employees leaked product plans to the media, Zuckerberg demanded the leaker’s immediate resignation.

Facebook’s contracted content monitors have reportedly been made to sign NDAs. These professionals can’t discuss anything about their working conditions publicly.

Zuckerberg’s Kauai neighbour, Hope Kallai, saw a six-foot wall being erected around portions of the Meta boss’ property in 2016, ensuring privacy for his family. However, it reportedly denied the local residents to enjoy the ocean view in the process. Also, the island is seeing a massive influx of outsiders (mostly construction workers), along with heavy vehicle flows and the resultant noise pollution.

On Kauai, if a private construction happens within a conservation zone known as a ‘Special Management Area’, it results in a public review process. The Meta boss’s project, however, hasn’t been put inside such protected zones. Still, as per Kallai, a community meeting on the project “would be really welcome.”

Zuckerberg has been facing bad press regarding his Kauai project. To mitigate that, he and his wife, Priscilla Chan have reportedly launched a local charity, called the ‘Chan Zuckerberg Kauai Community Fund’, which has given over $20 million to various Kauai non-profits since 2018. The couple has also reportedly established a relationship with Kauai mayor Derek Kawakami, and held meetings with the official to discuss funding local initiatives during a 2018 flooding crisis and the COVID outbreak in the island. In March 2021, Zuckerberg and Chan helped to relaunch a county jobs programme with a $4.2 million donation and gave $3.5 million to local COVID-19 assistance projects.

A course correction?

In November 2021, Zuckerberg reportedly gave a $4 million gift to fund the purchase of a traditional Hawaiian fishpond managed by Malama Huleia, a local non-profit that focuses on wetland restoration through native Hawaiian practices. That non-profit also had ties to local government, with the then vice chair of the county council Mason Chock serving as its president.

Brandi Hoffine Barr, spokesperson for the ‘Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’, informed the WIRED about the Meta boss and his team continuously trying to engage with the Kauai community.

Through donations, Zuckerberg and Chan are reportedly now among the most important philanthropists on Kauai. Local Facebook pages regularly feature ‘Appeals to Zuckerberg’ to fix the island’s problems.

However, the question remains, will the local community on Kauai ever accept Zuckerberg?

“Zuckerberg’s presence may increase charity, but will not address the root causes of why we need this type of philanthropic charity in the first place,” says Nikki Cristobal, executive director of local Hawaiian education and arts non-profit Kamawaelualani.

The WIRED report claims that Kauai locals view the billionaire as a part of a larger machine, “the same one that has been buying up Hawaiian land since the ‘Great Mahele’ authorised private land ownership in 1848.”

Zuckerberg may not feel himself entitled to sit and clarify his ‘AGI Vision’ to his detractors. However, in Kauai’s case, a similar ‘I Don’t Care’ approach may not work for the Meta boss.

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