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The Race to Prevent 'the Worst Case Scenario for Machine Learning'

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Rebecca Portnoff, data science director at Thorn, a nonprofit that fights the spread of child sexual abuse online.

Rebecca Portnoff, data science director for nonprofit Thorn, has been working on machine learning and child safety for more than a decade.

Credit: Kristian Thacker/The New York Times

Dave Willner has had a front-row seat to the evolution of the worst things on the internet.

He started working at Facebook in 2008, back when social media companies were making up their rules as they went along. As the company's head of content policy, it was Mr. Willner who wrote Facebook's first official community standards more than a decade ago, turning what he has said was an informal one-page list that mostly boiled down to a ban on "Hitler and naked people" into what is now a voluminous catalog of slurs, crimes and other grotesqueries that are banned across all of Meta's platforms.

So last year, when the San Francisco artificial intelligence lab OpenAI was preparing to launch Dall-E, a tool that allows anyone to instantly create an image by describing it in a few words, the company tapped Mr. Willner to be its head of trust and safety. Initially, that meant sifting through all of the images and prompts that Dall-E's filters flagged as potential violations — and figuring out ways to prevent would-be violators from succeeding.

It didn't take long in the job before Mr. Willner found himself considering a familiar threat.

From The New York Times
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