This post has been republished via RSS; it originally appeared at: Microsoft Research.
Members of the research community at Microsoft work continuously to advance their respective fields. Abstracts brings its audience to the cutting edge with them through short, compelling conversations about new and noteworthy achievements.
In this episode, Shrey Jain (opens in new tab), a Technical Project Manager at Microsoft Research, and Dr. Zoë Hitzig (opens in new tab), a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, discuss their work on contextual confidence, which presents a framework to understand and more meaningfully address the increasingly sophisticated challenges generative AI poses to communication.
GRETCHEN HUIZINGA: Welcome to Abstracts, a Microsoft Research Podcast that puts the spotlight on world-class research in brief. I’m Dr. Gretchen Huizinga. In this series, members of the research community at Microsoft give us a quick snapshot—or a podcast abstract—of their new and noteworthy papers.
Today I’m talking to Shrey Jain, an applied scientist at Microsoft Research, and Dr. Zoë Hitzig, a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. Shrey and Zoë are coauthors of a paper called Contextual Confidence and Generative AI, and you can read a preprint of this paper now on arXiv. Shrey Jain, Zoë Hitzig. Thanks for joining us on Abstracts!
SHREY JAIN: Thank you.
ZOË HITZIG: Great to be here.
HUIZINGA: Shrey, let’s start out with you. What problem does this research address, what made you care about it, and why should we care about it, too?
JAIN: Yeah, so right now, there’s a lot of discussion as towards what the impacts of generative AI is on communication, and there’s been a lot of different terms being thrown around amongst AI policy researchers or news organizations, such as disinformation, misinformation, copyright, fair use, social engineering, deception, persuasion, and it makes it really hard to understand the precise new problem that this new technology, generative AI, brings towards our understanding of how we communicate with one another. And so what we wanted to do in this research is try to present a framework to sort of guide both policymakers, AI labs, and other people working in this field to have a better understanding of the challenges that generative AI presents and accordingly be able to meet those challenges with a set of strategies that are precise to the way we understand it and also try to uncover new strategies that might remain hidden in other frameworks that are traditionally being used to address these challenges.
HUIZINGA: So expand on that a little bit in terms of, you know, what made you care about it? What was the prompt—no pun intended—for generative AI that got you concerned about this? And what kinds of things ought we to be thinking about in terms of why we should care about it, too?
JAIN: Yeah, there’s a lot of different areas under which generative AI presents new challenges to our ability to communicate, one of which was literally the ability to communicate with close family members. I think we’ve seen a lot of these deception attacks kind of happening on the elderly, who have been susceptible to these attacks pre-generative AI in the past, and only thought that that might become more concerning. I no longer live in a city where my family lives, and so the only way to communicate with them is through a digital form now, and if we don’t have confidence in that interaction, I’m scared of the repercussions that has more broadly. And, you know, being at Microsoft Research, having worked on initiatives related to election integrity, was also starting to think through the impacts that this could have at a much wider scale. And so that’s kind of what prompted us to start thinking through how we can meet that challenge and try to make a contribution to mitigate that risk.
HUIZINGA: Zoë, almost all research builds on existing foundations, so what body of work does your research draw from, and how does this paper add to the literature?
HITZIG: I’d say this research paper draws on a few different strands of literature. First, there has been a lot of social theorizing and philosophizing about what exactly constitutes privacy, for example, in the digital age. And in particular, there’s a theory of privacy that we find very compelling and we draw a lot from in the paper, which is a theory called contextual integrity, which was put forward by Helen Nissenbaum, a researcher at Cornell Tech. And what contextual integrity says is that rather than viewing privacy as a problem that’s fundamentally about control over one’s personal information or a problem about secrecy, contextual integrity says that an information flow is private when it respects the norms that have been laid down by the sender and the receiver. And so there’s a violation of privacy, according to Nissenbaum’s theory, when there’s a violation of contextual integrity. So we really take this idea from Nissenbaum and extend it to think about situations that, first of all, didn’t come up before because they’re unusual and generative AI poses new kinds of challenges. But second of all, we extend Nissenbaum’s theory into thinking not just about privacy but also authenticity. So what is authenticity? Well, in some sense, we say it’s a violation of a norm of truthfulness. What we really add to this theorizing on privacy is that we offer a perspective that shows that privacy questions and questions about authenticity or authentication can’t really be separated. And so on the theory side, we are extending the work of media scholars and internet scholars like Helen Nissenbaum but also like danah boyd and Nancy Baym, who are Microsoft Researchers, as well, to say, look, privacy and authenticity online can no longer be separated. We have to see them as two sides of the same coin. They’re both fundamentally about contextual confidence, the confidence we have in our ability to identify the context of a communication and to protect the context of that communication. So that’s sort of the theory side. And then, of course, our other big contribution is all the practical stuff that takes up the bulk of the paper.
HUIZINGA: Right. Shrey, let’s talk about methodology for a minute. And this is a unique paper in terms of methodology. How would you describe your research approach for this work, and where does it fit on the spectrum of methodology for research?
JAIN: Yeah, this paper is definitely a bit different from the conventional empirical research that might be done in the space. But it’s more of a policy or, I guess, framework paper where we try to provide both, as Zoë just commented on, the theory for contextual confidence but then also try to illustrate how we might apply contextual confidence as a framework to the existing challenges that generative AI presents. And so in order to make this framework and the theory that we present useful, we wanted to try to understand both what are the set of challenges that fall into these categories of identifying context and protecting context. So, specifically, how does generative AI threaten our ability to identify and protect? And trying to take a bird’s eye view in understanding those challenges. And then also kind of doing what might look similar to like a literature review but different in a way that we collect all of the different strategies that are typically talked about in the conversation but then in using contextual confidence as a framework realizing that new strategies that aren’t as well discussed in the conversation might be useful to meet these different challenges. And so from a methodology perspective, it’s almost like we’re applying the theory to uncover new … both new strategies that might be useful in this moment and then finding ways to give concrete examples of us applying that framework to existing technological questions that both people in the industry, as well as in policy, are thinking through when it comes to these questions about generative AI.
HUIZINGA: Zoë, for me, the most interesting part of research papers is that little part that comes after the phrase “and what we found was …” So, um, how would you describe what your takeaways were here, and how did you present them in the paper?
HITZIG: That’s a great question. That’s also my favorite question to ask myself when I’ve completed a project. I think the biggest thing that I learned through writing this paper and collaborating with Shrey was really, for the first time, I forced myself to interrogate the foundations of effective communication and to understand what it is that we rely on when, you know, we pass a stranger on the street and look at them in a certain way and somehow know what it means. Or what we rely on to understand, you know, how our partner is feeling when they speak to us over coffee in the morning. I was really forced to step back and think about the foundations of effective communication. And in doing so, what we realized was that an ability to both identify and protect context is what allows us to communicate effectively. And in some sense, this very basic fact made me see how sort of shockingly robust our communication systems have been in the past and yet at the same time how fragile they could be in the face of this alarming new technology that has the power to fundamentally upset these two foundational processes of identifying and protecting context in communication. I would also say, on the question of what we found, you know, my first answer was about these sort of fundamental insights that had never occurred to me before about what makes communication effective and how it’s threatened. But also, I was able to understand and sort of make sense of so many of the strategies and tools that are in discussion today. And, for example, I was able to see, in a totally new light, the importance of, for example, something as simple as having some form of digital identification or the simplicity of, you know, what makes a good password and what can we do to strengthen passwords in the future. So there was this strong theoretical insight, but also that theoretical insight was enormously powerful in helping us organize the very concrete discussions around particular tools and technologies.
HUIZINGA: Hmm. It’s a beautiful segue into the question I have for Shrey, which is talking about the real-world impact of this work. You know, coming down to the practical side from the theoretical, who does this work help and how?
JAIN: Yeah, I want to also add a disclaimer in that, in this podcast, we kind of present generative AI almost as this like villain to communication. [LAUGHTER] I think that there’s also a possibility that generative AI improves communication, and I want to make sure that we acknowledge the optimism that we do see here. I think part of the real-world impact is that we want to mitigate the cost that generative AI brings to communications without hurting the utility at the same time. When applying contextual confidence in contrast to, say, views of traditional privacy, which may view privacy in terms of secrecy or information integrity, we hopefully will find a way in ensuring that the utility of these models is not significantly lost. And so in terms of the real-world impact, I think when it comes to both policies that are being set right now, norms around how we interact with these models, or any startup founder or person who’s deploying these tools, when they think about the reviews that they’re doing from a privacy point of view or a compliance point of view, we hope that contextual confidence can guide, as a framework, a way that protects users of these tools along with not hindering model capabilities in that form.
HUIZINGA: Zoë, if there was one takeaway that you want our listeners to get from this work on contextual confidence, what would it be?
HITZIG: What I hope that readers will take away is, on the one hand, the key conceptual insight of the paper, which is that in today’s digital communication and in the face of generative AI, privacy questions and authenticity questions cannot be separated. And in addition, I hope that we’ve communicated the full force of that insight and shown how this framework can be useful in evaluating the deployment of new tools and new technologies.
HUIZINGA: Finally, Shrey, what outstanding questions or challenges remain here, and how do you hope to help answer them?
JAIN: In the paper, we have presented a theoretical understanding of contextual confidence and present various different strategies that might be able to help meet the challenges that generative AI presents to our ability to both identify and protect context, but we don’t know how those strategies themselves may or may not undermine the goals that we’re presenting because we haven’t done empirical research to know how a given strategy might work across different types of people. In fact, the strategies could undermine the initial goals that we intend. A verification stamp for some might enhance credibility, but for those who may not trust the institution verifying, it may actually reduce credibility. And I think there’s a lot of empirical research both on the tool development, usability, and then back to guiding the theoretical framework that we present that we want to continue to refine and work on as this framework hopefully becomes more widely used.
HUIZINGA: Well, Shrey Jain, Zoë Hitzig, thank you for joining us today, and to our listeners, thanks for tuning in.
If you’re interested in learning more about contextual confidence and generative AI, you can find a link to the preprint of this paper at aka.ms/abstracts, or you can read it on arXiv. See you next time on Abstracts!