Virgil Griffith Interview


The penultimate dude standing on King of the Nerds donned a Tin Man-like outfit and sang falsetto for Team Blextrophy. Virgil Griffith, however, is no script kiddie.

Virgil! Pic (top one included) by Jeremy Freeman for TBS.

This Caltech grad student has keen interests in artificial intellegence and crypto-currency and created the de-anonymizing WikiScanner among other things which fulfill the “disruptive technologist” label.

Most of this conversation has technical stuff in it to allow KotN fans to appreciate Virgil’s abilities. Read my other interviews: winner Celeste and runner-up Genevieve, Dr. Moogega, Danielle and Brandon.

Red-Headed Mule: I was relieved that you could handle that RC copter after struggling to maneuver it. Your rally gave Blextrophy their first win. What were the responses to you from the outside world after that episode aired?

Virgil Griffith: In the beginning the viewer feedback was mostly that I was an arrogant dick/douchebag who didn’t contribute much. After that episode the mail became more positive, which I liked.

RHM: Do you tune Genevieve out when she sings?

VG: Genevieve’s singing never bothered me. I thought it was kinda charming.

RHM: What was it like working with Aaron Swartz?

Aaron Swarts, 2008. Pic by Fred Benenson.

VG: Until his death Aaron Swartz and I had worked together for about six years. I’m still not over suicide—I’m still very upset with him for taking his own life. He was too important to the Internet treat his life as he did.

Last time I saw Aaron was in NYC in October 2012. I could tell he was down, but who wouldn’t be down facing what he was? I asked if we could talk about his lawsuit and how things were looking, but he declined and I dropped the matter. I did tell him that if worst came to worst that seeking asylum in a country that doesn’t extradite to the United States was an option—which among these includes Taiwan, France, and Switzerland. I’m still upset with him for not exploring the asylum option.

As for working with him, it often felt like I was working with a more extreme version of myself. Aaron was an autodidact with immense creativity. However due to the lack of formal training he was always a little weak on rigor and established methods. He was driven to political change. I always liked the name of the coalition he founded, “Demand Progress“—that was Aaron to a T. He demanded progress and he was going to force the issue if necessary.

The last project Aaron and I worked on was, which is actually still ongoing. For sometime it hasn’t gotten the love and attention it’s needed, but I hope that during summer I’ll be able to return to it.

RHM: What is the next objective in developing human-level artificial intelligence?

VG: Human-level AI is very hard—harder than anyone anticipated. And today researchers still aren’t sure how to do it. There are several things we need for human-level AI, but three ones I’d like to see are:

  1. Ability to recognize an object from many vantage points. E.g. to recognize a cat regardless of whether seeing its front, side, or back.
  2. Ability to disambiguate multiple objects when they cross each other. E.g. if watching a seen of a dance performance, to be able to recognize when dancer A goes behind dancer B.
  3. Some notion of “artificial common sense” about physical objects. E.g. That if you drop a glass cup it will break, but if you drop a plastic cup it won’t. That you have to pour a liquid into the open end of the cup, not the closed end.

This is kind of vague, but a lot of existing AI systems are too “special-purpose”. They do one thing very well, but only that one thing. There needs to be more generality so that when an AI is faced when something a little different it will attempt the sort of solutions that say a human with an IQ of 70-80 would attempt.

Recent Google hangout with Virgil, Genevieve, and Celeste:

RHM: How concerned are you about Fourth Amendment rights?

VG: Fixing the legal system isn’t my department, and I defer such questions to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. But based on my naïve view, I personally view National Security Letters and warrantless wire-tapping to be most concerning.

Progress has recently been made on National Security Letters, but the warrantless wire-tapping is much more pervasive, and likely much harder to stop.

RHM: What was the last hacker convention you’ve been to? How was it?

VG: I don’t go to hacker conferences as much as I used to. I’ve immersed myself so deeply in the complexity/information-theory world that I haven’t had much brain-space to think about much else.

However, the most recent one I went to was the Hackers on Planet Earth conference in NYC. It’s always an enjoyable conference. I go primarily for social reasons—there are plenty of people that I don’t usually see outside of the conferences.

Aside from social reasons I go to hacker conferences to be inspired by new ideas, new venues, new areas where technology is changing the world.

RHM: GNU General Public License or BSD License, no third option, please.

VG: GNU GPL. I like my freedom viral.

RHM: How are you using BitCoin?

VG: Before my graduate school training my strongest asset was creative problem solving. Now after spending six years in information theory at Caltech, it’s basically a tie between creative problem solving and system’s analysis.

So right now I’m mostly inspecting the crypto model academically to try to find ways to better preserve anonymity and still prevent people from spending the same bitcoins twice.

BitCoin will not be the crypto-currency that changes the world, but it is the forerunner of one that will. This space should be watched. Within the next 15 years something originating from this space will turn the world upside down.

Now, a break from the techie talk. Let Virgil, Celeste, and Genevieve entertain you with “Talk Nerdy to Me” from the Nerdy Dancing episode.

RHM: How many players does it take to play the Game of Life?

VG: You mean Conway’s Game of Life? None.

RHM: How will you fight American anti-intellectualism?

VG: Emphasize the connection link between intellectuals laying the foundation for future fancy technology and military dominance. Americans love their gizmos and their military superiority. Solidify the connection in their mind that intellectualism -> science/technology -> engineering/military.

Emphasize that we didn’t get the lightbulb from merely tweaking candles. We got the lightbulb by individual scientists having the funding to explore their curiosities.

[Compare and contrast Moogega’s answer to the previous two questions.]

RHM: Any final words of wisdom?

VG: Life is a MMORPG. Grind, level up; then lead your life with the ambition and fearlessness that you play a MMORPG.


To Virgil and all readers,


(“Thank you” in binary. I hope that came out correctly.)

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Author: Clarence

Webmaster, editor, writer of Red-Headed Mule. RHM was founded in 2011. Currently is liking British TV better than U.S. TV, mayhaps.