Lila Tretikov

Generation of Knowledge

Air Date: August 12, 2016

Lila Tretikov, former executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, talks about learning in the digital age.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Two years ago we hosted Sue Gardner, then executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, which governs the modern-day Encyclopedia Britannica of Wikipedia. For her Reflections of a Wikimaniac, let me repeat what I said then about the enormous educational value of Wikipedia. It’s the world’s most-used and increasingly most reliable source of information. Or I would say one of the seven wonders of the modern world. Lila Tretikov, Gardner’s successor, who until this year directed the foundation, joins me today for what I imagine will be another scintillating exchange on the future of our information society. A young global leader of the World Economic Forum, Tretikov is a Russian-American engineer, managing specialized open source software and technology infrastructure. And I first want to ask Lila, whom we’re delighted to have here today, that same question I began with Sue Gardner. Is she as bullish about the web’s potential for social advancement in the public interest as when she first was tapped to lead Wikipedia?

TRETIKOV: I am extremely bullish as you have put it in uh, in a sense that I think we are at the front edge, we’re at the dawn of a new age, an intelligence age if you will, if you will. And I think Wikipedia is an extreme example of the representation of uh, of that phenomenon, you know, uh, the ability of society to create and distribute knowledge but also build on top of that. Um, I think the kind of advancements and uh, the kind of changes that we’re about to see in the next ten, twenty, thirty years are going to be unprecedented and they’re all going to be driven by our ability to be smarter and to learn more and to make that process more ubiquitous.

HEFFNER: We want there to be an informed artificial intelligence if there ever is an artificial intelligence, right? And I know that you are thinking, you’re marinating in the promise of artificial, but your work with Wikipedia was so important because that is really the foundation of knowledge with which we can inform decisions about innovation and the technological future that lies ahead, right?

TRETIKOV: Oh that’s right, that’s right. And artificial intelligence, you know we talk about artificial intelligence, intelligence and that’s a bunch of algorithms, right? But what we should be thinking is intelligence overall. Our next frontier is in effect understanding intelligence in general, our own human intelligence, not just representation of intelligence in machines. Uh, those two are, there’s a symbiotic relationship between those two. In some ways machines are already smarter than we are, they can calculate faster, let’s say, that’s a form of intelligence, right? And they can see sometimes better, the vision portion of intelligence could be better than human. And in other ways, you know, humans are of course highly, highly superior so as we progress and, and as we develop those different types of intelligences and how—as we understand our own human mind, how do we actually enhance how we think about ourselves, about our society, about our planet and how do we evolve as species? So all of this is kind of works together, um, you know, to advance that.

HEFFNER: How did we do that at Wikipedia? How do we do that at Wikipedia?

TRETIKOV: Wikipedia is actually an incredibly important phenomenon and what is, um, what community does behind the scenes, something that’s not really visible to us, is something that we, I think is really important for every human to understand because we can, Wikipedia is based not just on unbiased, uh, pure facts, uh, that are represented to all of us, readers of uh, of the site, but what’s even more important is how those facts make it there. The critical thinking, the high-level analysis, the creativity that goes into creating an article, those are the things that the next generation of humans really need to assimilate and learn. It’s not just the outcome of the product of Wikipedia but the process by which it is created that is so, so important.

HEFFNER: How can we be bullish that those automated robotic processes are not gonna coopt human intelligence because we’re not being intelligent human to human?

TRETIKOV: [LAUGHS] That’s a great question and um, I think, think of those technologies as assistants, as helpers to our intellect, in fact I believe that those technologies are gonna enable us to be more human, to be more creative, to be more scientific and to have actually more fun if we do it right. I think we’re in a very important juncture where we have to make some very, very important decisions and we need to be really thoughtful about it, but if we do it right, what we are actually enabling is going back to our humanity, being, being able to be more social, being able to be more creative and to learn more. And this technology is enabling us to do that, so think about it this way. Um, if you have uh, technology is starting to come closer and closer to the human patterns of interaction, right? So now the next frontier is really voice, is being able to converse with, with a com—with a computer, right? And uh, and make it, making it even easier for us to acquire knowledge. So that, those uh, those technologies are making it easier and easier for us and making it more and more accessible so that people can be, anybody can be, become if they wish, if they are willing and they have the, if they have the desire to become an autodidact, right, to learn on their own independently and that’s where we’re going towards, and that’s going to be eventually available to every human on the planet.

HEFFNER: When you talk about those critical decisions forthcoming, for our viewers, there was a decision made to pursue something called the knowledge engine at Wikipedia that was going to potentially channel Wikipedia results in a way, for more people to access them and to have the information at hand because Google and a number of other commercial entities are beginning to absorb the great preponderance of searches.

TRETIKOV: If you look at the generation of knowledge, um, there is so much of it out there on the internet and it’s accelerating much more rapidly. That’s the first tier, uh, of knowledge, it’s really information. In order for, for us to take advantage of it, in order for us to get cognition, we need to understand the context. We need to understand how concepts are connected with each other and have all of that up to date. So when you think about others learning from something, they need that type of um, structured information at their fingertips. And there is, it’s not available anywhere, right? The only companies that have it are really large corporations and they don’t make it available to everyone so it’s a part of the democratic fabric of knowledge creation. And Wikipedia actually has it. It’s uh, the question is making it more available and putting more focus on it. So I don’t want to speak for, you know, for, for the community or for specific community members but I think people looked at it more as a distraction or possibly, um, wanted more participation into the design process of it. Um, those are some of the… I think issues that came up as part of that.

HEFFNER: I should be more articulate. There was resistance to the knowledge engine which was a grant proposal and is in the process of being created, which is a kind of companion to Wikipedia as you suggested to make the entries more accessible to the people who write them, who edit them and who read them to be informed citizens. One of the problems that the detractors of Wikipedia have had is that it is that neutral, unbiased, vetted source of information that it was not when Jimmy Wales founded the organization as Sue Gardner said from his, in his pajamas in his…

TRETIKOV: That’s right, that’s right.

HEFFNER: Basement in Florida. The problem is, even in America but specifically in repressive regimes, there, there are phantom Wikipedias being developed as alternatives that are the function of autocracies, the function of wanting the government-sanctioned propaganda to be what you search, whether it’s in…


HEFFNER: Russia or in China, issues like genocide, Tianenmen Square voided in history. How did you deal with that issue when you were at Wikipedia and how are you thinking about it now as you see so much tumult in foreign affairs?

TRETIKOV: Yeah, that’s a fantastic question. We resisted all types of censorships. In fact we changed access to Wikipedia to become completely encrypted so that uh, governments could not pick and choose which pages they could filter out or delete. Uh, the, we believe, I believe personally that it is fundamentally important, uh, for, for the internet to have a channel that’s completely public and is completely open, because even if you think okay, they’re countries that are filtering out results of, of the internet, but when you think about any other type of interface that you use to access inter—uh, the internet, that could be happening as well. So we resisted all of that including the surveillance, um, by our own government, um, when it comes to Wikipedia results.

HEFFNER: Are you particularly sensitive to those challenges in Russia?

TRETIKOV: I’m sensitive to those challenges across the globe, uh, but growing up in a country that was opening up, seeing what knowledge can do, how much it can empower an individual, yes I am of course very sensitive to that.

HEFFNER: How were you ensuring, was it through IP addresses or how were you detecting, uh, illegitimate contributors to the forum?

TRETIKOV: So there is multiple ways that we deduct, um, uh, illegitimate contributions. There are multiple layers of it and at the end of the day, it is the community that governs the site and makes those decisions at the end of the day but there’s, there are layers and layers of automation in front of that that automatically deducts, um, bad edits for example or edits that are numerous in, in quantity that are definitely, uh, coming from uh, an improper source for example. And uh, while we’re, while I was at Wikimedia, we started putting in place mission learning algorithms that will allow, um, editors to better detect, automatically detect those types of activities.

HEFFNER: We had a guest on the program named Michael Lynch, a philosopher who was concerned that the readers of Wikipedia are largely relying upon the first few sentences of a lede or a summary and not reading into the depth of it and when we think about the technology at our fingertips, whether it’s cloud computing or other mechanisms of automated storage of information, it strikes me that we as humans are not storing that data that is the richness of Wikipedia in the ways we ought to. How are we gonna correct that moving forward?

TRETIKOV: Well that’s what actually part of the work that we were doing is enabling those connections to be easier to understand and link and to help you follow between, from concept, from the first concept to deeper knowledge, because learning isn’t just about um, understanding a fact, it’s really about uh, this uh, progress or, of more and more complexity and making it easier for the individual and faster to get to that next level. I joke that uh, you know, how do I get from Adam to flying to Andromeda? Um, in order for you to do that, you need to present information, the interface to the information, the interface to knowledge needs to be much easier and more dynamic. The way that, and we actually all learn differently. So one of the companies that uh, I was uh, I was a board member of specifically was focused on that. We were helping students to learn the way they learn best, to absorb the information in the way each individual student absorbs it best. And this is just we are at the very front end, we are at the beginning of things like that, um, where we’re gonna be able to learn faster and understand better.

HEFFNER: As you pointed out from the outset, there are behemoths of huge companies that don’t exactly at least are not forward in embracing the mission that you describe. What was the challenge like and, and is it impossible for the for-profit commercial organizations like Google and Facebook to find a unified vision toward that concern for mechanisms of learning?

TRETIKOV: I think actually all of those companies are concerned with that and they’re, they’re,

HEFFNER: Inching closer to that.

TRETIKOV: People, yeah and I think there are people within all of those companies that are thinking about what is this going to look like in the future and how do we help humans effectively evolve? Because as we’re building, uh, intelligence all around us, how do we make ourselves smarter and happier? That’s, that’s the end, end result, that’s how do we decode our own brain? I think if everybody’s working on that, the challenge is, is that you always have to balance the commercial interest, uh, with the idyllic knowledge, you know, idyllic understanding of the future and you know, figure out the right path for—forward.

HEFFNER: But our good mutual friend Doran Weber, I remember Sue Gardner when she was here cited Doran saying Wikipedia is the exception. What you’re doing is cutting edge. And so when you talk about that balance of commercial and public good, it, it strikes me that your orientation around the world is one that is void in sort of the best practices, right? You, you pride, you prided yourself on a community of learners and creators who were actually practicing those ideals.

TRETIKOV: The most important thing that we can do is give people the power and the tools to implement, to empower them, to, to do things that they want to do best, whether it’s being creative, whether it’s, uh, it’s learning, whether it’s uh, creating on top of what’s already available, so what I am really interested in is how do we make that more accessible to, to everybody in the world? How do we make knowledge accessible to somebody in Uganda, to somebody in India, to somebody in Korea in different cross languages? And how do we enable them to change their life? I say water, air, knowledge, without it it’s the first and most fundamental things that needs to, every human being needs. And then it depends on you know, some people will take that opportunity, others won’t, but at the end of the day, what’s really important is we make it available to them.

HEFFNER: What’s the blueprint based on your experience for integration of that knowledge as a companion to the water and the food? How, how can you integrate the knowledge?

TRETIKOV: Yeah, yeah, I think that’s a very, very important question because I think the education system as we, as it exists today was designed for the industrial age, right? Uh, because as we uh, created cities and factories and we started putting kids all in the same one room with one teacher, you know, that dynamic is going to have to change. The way we learn is going to have to change. We’re going to have to focus much more on how to learn versus learning facts and, and data…

HEFFNER: That’s a great point, because those, there is a vault, like you said, in the cloud of everything we’ve ever absorbed as a species, right?


HEFFNER: So it’s the mechanisms through which we choose to absorb them, right? That’s…

TRETIKOV: That’s right, and how do you, you know, the creation of knowledge is really most of the time is in diversity. How do we integrate different subjects? How do we um, find the, apply one subject area or one idea in different field, that’s oftentimes how we invent new things, right? How do we synthesize ideas, all of those things are, how do, how do we stay creative, how do we not kill creativity in our children? You know, those are the kind of things that we need to think about and then how do we make it more accessible, more and more and more accessible to every human being in the way that they can, they can learn?

HEFFNER: There’s been a campaign around diversifying the editors, the people who are the, the source of the information uh, and vet the information. How would you assess whether or not the Wikipedia editorial board in effect has scaled when it comes to diversity?

TRETIKOV: Uh, so Wikipedia is very diverse and at the same time it’s also, you know, it has its own center basically and that is a community grew and evolved in a certain time and space uh, and um, as a newcomer, it’s still hard to, to enter and cha—and make a change, right? Or make changes within the practices of the community because it takes a long time to learn, it takes a lot, a lot, a lot to kind of enter and learn the ropes of being a Wikipedian.

HEFFNER: Well you and Sue were and are groundbreaking in being women to lead this organization. The challenge therein has been again the mechanism for editing and ensuring that that community of editors is diverse.

TRETIKOV: Some of that is um, more psychological and social and others are just you know, tools honestly and in the last two years we deployed a whole range of different ways to uh, interact and edit, um, Wikipedia and that’s really started to pay off and help. Uh, you know, you have, you have now visual environment for editing the site. Used to be that you could only do it in some coding, you know, basically and in code, uh, so that in and, in and of itself is a barrier when you think about how many people code, right, only you know, one, you know, one quarter of coders are women, right? And that’s a few, that’s in the university and drops off from there, right? So the diff—women interact with information differently and they uh, work with information differently so that definitely is extremely helpful, um, but also changing the modes of how do you access the site, right? On, on the, on the web versus in, on your mobile device which is you know, where it’s going and hopefully and, you know, auditorially as well.

HEFFNER: How can Wikipedia, and is it gonna be through the knowledge engine, evolve into being a picture book as well as an encyclopedia?

TRETIKOV: A picture book or maybe a three-dimensional world, right?


TRETIKOV: We could imagine, we can dream, um, that it’s not, it’s no longer, um, movement in one direction, right? It’s fi—uh, it’s fully an immersive experience, right? So we can go uh, back in time and into a place in history, we can look in three dimensions, you know, we could, we could really explore differently, and what we were really uh, looking at from the uh, visualization perspective is how do we pull you in, how do we entice you to really follow your interest, to go from something that you just wanted to look up a fact, to really pull you into that world of knowledge, to really entice you to learn, to really engage you, to make you hungry to learn more, to want to learn more.

HEFFNER: One way you’ve done that since the advent of Wikipedia is this day in history, basically dictionary terms, encyclopedia entries that are pertinent to that day or that week’s news, but really should there not be eventually an option to circumvent kind of that, because we know how uninspiring it has been for young people to open the dictionary or the encyclopedia…

TRETIKOV: As all types of sensory input that we as humans store in our heads, except now it’s much bigger than your or my brain can store. And ‘cause we all need it at the end of the day. It could be visual, it could be auditorial, could be at some point maybe tactile, right? Who knows what we’re gonna do in the future, right, and of course there’s words and text and symbols and, and numbers and all of those things that enable us to learn much better, enable us to really build on top of that and create new discoveries, right? And, and learn more and, and expl—and truly, truly explore and, and um, and go as far as we want uh, in terms of our own uh, satisfaction with uh, with learning and information.

HEFFNER: The visualization is the obvious way to pull people in because of the Snapchats and Facebooks that rely so much on the visual and the click. And so when contemplating the next frontier of Wikipedia, you know, we have to go back to the raw dollars and cents and, and realize if Wikipedia even had a fraction of um, the net worth or value of a Google or any of these organizations, it’d be a whole new ballgame for learning. I mean it would, we would be so much more equipped to tackle the world.

TRETIKOV: Well Wikipedia actually has a lot, a lot of data that’s not visible. So one of the things that we wanted to bring to people and, and I hope that that does happen in the future is expose that information, you know, just the images alone, you don’t see most of the images on Wikipedia, you only see a very, very small fraction and you could, you could expose all of that information, uh, and, and help…


TRETIKOV: Help everybody just follow that kind of, that thread, the bread crumbs into, into the next learning.

HEFFNER: Right and I think that there are people who learn that there is a commons of Wikipedia art, photos, video but a lot of people are not aware of that, that there is sort of,


HEFFNER: A foundation, like you said,


HEFFNER: You’re not even exposing the vast majority of pixels, but if Wikipedia had a fraction of a Google budget for a subdivision or even just one Google employee’s salary, right?


HEFFNER: Would we not be, not just saying we’re bullish about the future but really content with the present.

TRETIKOV: Well, you know, money is really, really important. Of course I don’t want to devalue that but um, yeah we have to remember that Wikipedia is really built by volunteers, people who don’t get paid at all. It is, it’s a, people like yourself and myself who, who at night see something and they start getting into it and they start, uh, editing and they are driven by altruism and they’re driven by their desire to build something. So money doesn’t help that as much.


TRETIKOV: Um, I think it helps when um, when the community ultimately wants to make changes, right? Um, so it’s a, it’s a, it’s not the same question for Wikipedia as it is for any other commercial, uh, commercial entity as a result.

HEFFNER: Well maybe if Wikipedia just had the budget of the New York city subway system, see something, say something, and then we would write it, right, Lila?

TRETIKOV: [LAUGHS] I think, I think um,


TRETIKOV: The really important, uh, question to ask,

HEFFNER: Yeah, yeah.

TRETIKOV: Is not really about Wikipedia but how do we fund a public site, a public space on the internet that is governed by people and is built for people and is transparent for people, and yes, money is important that, but how that money is derive and who pays for it is important. As well it’s not just about Wikipedia, it’s about public internet.

HEFFNER: Well hopefully some of our viewers have learned from you the ways to do that in a public space, and it was delightful being with you today Lila, thank you.

TRETIKOV: Thank you so much.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.