AI Is Making People ‘Question Their Own Reality’: Chelsea Manning

AI Is Making People ‘Question Their Own Reality’: Chelsea Manning

Artificial intelligence was again the hot topic of discussion at the annual Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal. During the event’s closing day, whistleblower and activist Chelsea Manning expressed concern about the development of artificial intelligence and the clash between humans and technology.

“We live in this era where we’re surrounded by technology,” Manning said. “I’ve encountered numerous instances of this clash between the humans that we are and the tech, and the way technology is shaping how we interact with each other, and how institutions are a part of that.”

Manning says that her life has been shaped by exposure to the digital realm, including being homeless, joining the military, and going to prison for leaking military documents to WikiLeaks in 2010.

“I let that drive how I integrate, view technology, and want to build a bigger, better future,” Manning said.


Manning questioned the motives behind the rapid development of AI technology, who the technology will ultimately benefit, and if the push into artificial intelligence is commoditizing everyday life.

“Are we simply forgetting the human element and turning every single interaction that we have on a day-to-day basis into a commodity?” Manning said. “This commodity is us doing something as simple as swiping on an app or clicking a cute little heart icon.”

Calling artificial intelligence and large language models the buzzwords of the day, Manning pointed to the large amount of data these models are trained with, citing Wikipedia, textbooks, videos, and images as examples.

Manning pointed out that, unlike files on a server, this data is embedded in the model’s weights and balances and cannot be simply deleted, which stands in contrast with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and privacy rights, where individuals can request data deletion.

“I think that the onus is on us, as technologists, to develop tools that take into account the fact that people need to have some semblance of privacy, and that communications shouldn’t be a resource to be extracted and to be commodified,” Manning said. “I don’t want to live in a world where the relationships that we have are a numerical value.”

With large language models, Manning cautioned, once a person’s personal or private information is incorporated, it becomes a permanent part of the model, making removal impossible.

In 2021, Manning joined the Switzerland-based company Nym Technologies as a security consultant and privacy advocate.  Nym Technologies launched its privacy-focused project Nym, a decentralized identity platform, in 2020 on the Cosmos blockchain.

“I think that my focus more broadly and generally is on the importance of having some semblance of privacy—through encryption or through the technical, technological means that we have—and be able to use that intuitively,” Manning said. “It shouldn’t be hard, and it shouldn’t be difficult to use.”

Manning also highlighted the rise and increase of AI-generated deepfakes.

“The things that have caught my attention in the last six months have been not the fact that people are using deepfakes in public discourse and discussion, but the fact that they can be made and the fact that they exist, and are used to cast doubt on actual verified information,” Manning said. “I think that this trend keeps causing people to question their own reality more and more.”

As deepfakes have become more advanced, policymakers worry that they could influence upcoming elections or fuel hate online. One solution Manning proposed was using cryptography to verify information.

Manning previously told Decrypt that Bitcoin appealed to her passion for cryptography, securing information, and building decentralized cryptographically based networks.

“I know that it’s attractive to be able to say, I can pick my own reality, I can pick what I like,” Manning said. “But the reality is the real physical material world is going to come up against that at some point. And I think that when it comes to climate in particular, we won’t be able to just pretend it away.”

Edited by Ryan Ozawa.

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