Atlas of AI
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Listen in 19 min.
Learn the key ideas of the book by Kate Crawford

Atlas of AI

How artificial intelligence affects society and politics

Artificial intelligence is often associated with something lightweight or sustainable, especially when we talk about algorithms, clouds, and codes, but AI is actually an extractive power-based industry. In Atlas of AI: Power, Politics, and the Planetary Costs of Artificial Intelligence, Kate Crawford describes the dark side of artificial intelligence, including the exploitation of resources, such as lithium, underpaid crowdworkers, unlawful data collection, discrimination, and a power system that refuses to evolve. The author also provides a possible solution to enable the AI industry to change course, and to distance itself from undemocratic governance and increasing inequality.

Atlas of AI
Read in 15 min.
Listen in 19 min.

Artificial intelligence is an industry of extraction, which must be analysed from various perspectives

An atlas is a collection of resources, including images, texts, and information in varying degrees of detail. It is not a neutral source of information, but provides a specific perspective through which we are able to view the world: through science. Producing an atlas, however, also requires creativity, and this allows us to view the world from an artistic perspective. So, similarly to how we view the world around us, we also need to approach artificial intelligence (AI) from different perspectives. One solution is to take a topographical approach, looking beyond the abstract promises of AI and the latest machine learning models, in order to understand the different fields in which AI is applied, and see just how closely they are interconnected. What’s more, we must remember that artificial intelligence tends to analyse our planet by transforming it into something that can only be read from a computational point of view. One example is the standardisation and distribution of maps owned by the AI industry, which indirectly controls people’s movements, communications, and jobs. If we don’t do anything about this situation, the AI industry may well stop creating maps altogether, and become the only atlas through which we are able to see the world. Much like the mappae mundi, which were maps created in mediaeval times to illustrate different aspects of the world from the perspective of certain religious concepts and influences of power, AI represents only a small, undiversified, and powerful group of people.

Kate Crawford maintains that artificial intelligence is an industry of extraction. Modern AI systems are commonly believed to be sustainable or ‘green’, a misconception deriving from their association with certain natural elements, such as the ‘cloud’. The reality, however, is that they are heavily dependent on the exploitation of energy, mineral resources, cheap labour, and a large supply of data. Moreover, they are built around the concepts of capitalism and control, which highlights and amplifies the system’s underlying inequality. We can, and must, question and change these ideals, but the only way to change the politics behind AI is if the various justice movements – especially those fighting for the protection of privacy, workers’ rights, Earth preservation, and racial equity – join forces to present a united front. It is also important to ask ourselves what kind of politics artificial intelligence is helping to propagate, which interests it supports, and who it is harming. These questions are not easy to answer, and the risk of becoming powerless in our stand against such dystopian ideas is high. Yet, we must remember that this is not an unsolvable situation, and that now is the time to pull together and make a change.


The key ideas of "Atlas of AI"

Artificial intelligence is an industry of extraction, which must be analysed from various perspectives
Artificial intelligence is neither autonomous nor rational, but a product of the dominant power system
Artificial intelligence is based on dual extraction: mineral extraction and data mining
The work that goes into artificial intelligence systems is another form of extraction
Data collection involves the same concept of extraction that governs the relationship between artificial intelligence and the Earth’s resources and labour
Classifying data is an act of power
Artificial intelligence stems from a specific system of power
Take-home message
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