For: Atlas of AI: Power, Politics, and the Planetary Costs of Artificial Intelligence (Yale University Press, 2021)
Kate Crawford’s Atlas of AI explores the nature of artificial intelligence. She carefully maps dystopian and utopian assumptions about AI, some of which date back to the Cold War while some derive from the more recent, breathless hype of Silicon Valley. Two myths that are strong in the AI field are that nonhuman systems are perfect analogues for human brains, and that intelligence is an ahistorical, natural, abstract entity. Instead, she argues, AI is “neither artificial nor intelligent,” in itself. Rather, what we think of as AI – Apple’s Siri, or The Terminator’s Skynet – is, in reality, constituted by a layered, overlapping and interconnected set of processes defined by their human designers and operators. AI is embedded in and the product of social, cultural, economic, political and environmental context. Crawford acts as a tour guide, taking the reader on a series of personally narrated journeys to various sites in her atlas – lithium mines, digital factories and Amazon warehouses, data collection and classification operations, New Guinea villages to explore the history of facial recognition, and military and municipal government applications. AI, she insists, is “a structure of power that combines infrastructure, capital and labor.” Rather than an abstract system, it is embedded and intertwined with both human and natural worlds.
The purveyors of AI could become the Sorcerer’s Apprentice or the builder of a Golem if the systems they have created are misunderstood simply as super-intelligent digital beings with sinister intentionality that can overawe and subjugate humans – each with their own sweeping, imperial ambitions. “As long as AI remains the ‘new’ tool of the military-corporate-industrial complex, one that protects capital and property while it demands exploitation of the third world, there is little hope for social change,” as the writer and artist Molly Hankwitz recently observed of Crawford’s book. “The technology is too pervasive; too fast; and too privatized…” What is really happening, Crawford argues, is much more complicated and possibly more destructive to the long run of human flourishing than the AI fantasies of science fiction. This book is a sober corrective to wild fables about AI that draws on the best practices in the history of technology.
Kate Crawford’s elegant and capacious approach to artificial intelligence in Atlas of AI provides a model of the best kind of inquiry in both science and technology studies (STS) and cultural history. Lucid in writing and argument, we award it the Sally Hacker Prize for 2022.