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In order for each of those components to arrive on the final assembly line where it will be assembled by workers in Foxconn facilities, different components need to be physically transferred from more than supplier sites across 30 different countries. Visualizing this process as one global, pancontinental network through which materials, components and products flow, we see an analogy to the global information network. Where there is a single internet packet travelling to an Amazon Echo, here we can imagine a single cargo container.
Standardized cargo containers allowed the explosion of modern shipping industry, which made it possible to model the planet as a massive, single factory.
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In recent years, shipping boats produce 3. It has been estimated that one container ship can emit as much pollution as 50 million cars, and 60, deaths worldwide are attributed indirectly to cargo ship industry pollution related issues annually. Typically, workers spend 9 to 10 months in the sea, often with long working shifts and without access to external communications. Workers from the Philippines represent more than a third of the global shipping workforce. Similar to our habit to neglect materiality of internet infrastructure and information technology, shipping industry is rarely represented in popular culture.
The increasing complexity and miniaturization of our technology depends on the process that strangely echoes the hopes of early medieval alchemy. There are 17 rare earth elements, which are embedded in laptops and smartphones, making them smaller and lighter. They play a role in color displays, loudspeakers, camera lenses, GPS systems, rechargeable batteries, hard drives and many other components. They are key elements in communication systems from fiber optic cables, signal amplification in mobile communication towers to satellites and GPS technology.
But the precise configuration and use of these minerals is hard to ascertain. In the same way that medieval alchemists hid their research behind cyphers and cryptic symbolism, contemporary processes for using minerals in devices are protected behind NDAs and trade secrets. The unique electronic, optical and magnetic characteristics of rare earth elements cannot be matched by any other metals or synthetic substitutes discovered to date. David Abraham describes the mining of dysprosium and Terbium used in a variety of high-tech devices in Jianxi, China.
This means that A satellite picture of the tiny Indonesian island of Bangka tells a story about human and environmental toll of the semiconductor production. The damage is best seen from the air, as pockets of lush forest huddle amid huge swaths of barren orange earth. Where not dominated by mines, this is pockmarked with graves, many holding the bodies of miners who have died over the centuries digging for tin.
At Amazon distribution centers, vast collections of products are arrayed in a computational order across millions of shelves. The position of every item in this space is precisely determined by complex mathematical functions that process information about orders and create relationships between products. The aim is to optimize the movements of the robots and humans that collaborate in these warehouses.
With the help from an electronic bracelet, the human worker is directed though warehouses the size of airplane hangars, filled with objects arranged in an opaque algorithmic order. Hidden among the thousands of other publicly available patents owned by Amazon, U. Wurman, Peter R. Here, the worker becomes a part of a machinic ballet, held upright in a cage which dictates and constrains their movement.
As we have seen time and time again in the research for our map, dystopian futures are built upon the unevenly distributed dystopian regimes of the past and present, scattered through an array of production chains for modern technical devices. The vanishingly few at the top of the fractal pyramid of value extraction live in extraordinary wealth and comfort. But the majority of the pyramids are made from the dark tunnels of mines, radioactive waste lakes, discarded shipping containers, and corporate factory dormitories.
Amazon patent number A1. At the end of 19th century, a particular Southeast Asian tree called palaquium gutta became the center of a technological boom. These trees, found mainly in Malaysia, produce a milky white natural latex called gutta percha. After English scientist Michael Faraday published a study in The Philosophical Magazine in about the use of this material as an electrical insulator, gutta percha rapidly became the darling of the engineering world.
It was seen as the solution to the problem of insulating telegraphic cables in order that they could withstand the conditions of the ocean floor. As the global submarine business grew, so did demand for palaquium gutta tree trunks. The historian John Tully describes how local Malay, Chinese and Dayak workers were paid little for the dangerous works of felling the trees and slowly collecting the latex.
A mature palaquium gutta could yield around grams of latex. But in , the first transatlantic cable was around km long and weighed tons — requiring around tons of gutta percha. To produce just one ton of this material required around , tree trunks. The jungles of Malaysia and Singapore were stripped, and by the early s the palaquium gutta had vanished. In a last-ditch effort to save their supply chain, the British passed a ban in to halt harvesting the latex, but the tree was already extinct.
The Victorian environmental disaster of gutta percha , from the early origins of the global information society, shows how the relationships between technology and its materiality, environments, and different forms of exploitation are imbricated. Just as Victorians precipitated ecological disaster for their early cables, so do rare earth mining and global supply chains further imperil the delicate ecological balance of our era. From the material used to build the technology enabling contemporary networked society, to the energy needed for transmitting, analyzing, and storing the data flowing through the massive infrastructure, to the materiality of infrastructure: these deep connections and costs are more significant, and have a far longer history, than is usually represented in the corporate imaginaries of AI.
Palaquium gutta. Large-scale AI systems consume enormous amounts of energy. Yet the material details of those costs remain vague in the social imagination. It remains difficult to get precise details about the amount of energy consumed by cloud computing services. The world's biggest cloud computer company remains almost completely non-transparent about the energy footprint of its massive operations. Among the global cloud providers, only AWS still refuses to make public basic details on the energy performance and environmental impact associated with its operations. As human agents, we are visible in almost every interaction with technological platforms.
We are always being tracked, quantified, analyzed and commodified. But in contrast to user visibility, the precise details about the phases of birth, life and death of networked devices are obscured. With emerging devices like the Echo relying on a centralized AI infrastructure far from view, even more of the detail falls into the shadows. While consumers become accustomed to a small hardware device in their living rooms, or a phone app, or a semi-autonomous car, the real work is being done within machine learning systems that are generally remote from the user and utterly invisible to her.
The outputs of machine learning systems are predominantly unaccountable and ungoverned, while the inputs are enigmatic. To the casual observer, it looks like it has never been easier to build AI or machine learning-based systems than it is today. In the dynamic of dataset collection through platforms like Facebook, users are feeding and training the neural networks with behavioral data, voice, tagged pictures and videos or medical data. In an era of extractivism, the real value of that data is controlled and exploited by the very few at the top of the pyramid.
When massive data sets are used to train AI systems, the individual images and videos involved are commonly tagged and labeled.
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Olga Russakovsky et al. In , Hungarian inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen constructed a chess-playing machine known as the Mechanical Turk. His goal, in part, was to impress Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. This device was capable of playing chess against a human opponent and had spectacular success winning most of the games played during its demonstrations around Europe and the Americas for almost nine decades. But the Mechanical Turk was an illusion that allowed a human chess master to hide inside the machine and operate it.
Some years later, Amazon.
With Amazon Mechanical Turk, it may seem to users that an application is using advanced artificial intelligence to accomplish tasks. This kind of invisible, hidden labor, outsourced or crowdsourced, hidden behind interfaces and camouflaged within algorithmic processes is now commonplace, particularly in the process of tagging and labeling thousands of hours of digital archives for the sake of feeding the neural networks.
As we see repeated throughout the system, contemporary forms of artificial intelligence are not so artificial after all. We can speak of the hard physical labor of mine workers, and the repetitive factory labor on the assembly line, of the cybernetic labor in distribution centers and the cognitive sweatshops full of outsourced programmers around the world, of the low paid crowdsourced labor of Mechanical Turk workers, or the unpaid immaterial work of users. At every level contemporary technology is deeply rooted in and running on the exploitation of human bodies.
In his one-paragraph short story "On Exactitude in Science", Jorge Luis Borges presents us with an imagined empire in which cartographic science became so developed and precise, that it needed a map on the same scale as the empire itself. In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.
The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. Current machine learning approaches are characterized by an aspiration to map the world, a full quantification of visual, auditory, and recognition regimes of reality. From cosmological model for the universe to the world of human emotions as interpreted through the tiniest muscle movements in the human face, everything becomes an object of quantification.
The new infinite horizon is data extraction, machine learning, and reorganizing information through artificial intelligence systems of combined human and machinic processing. The territories are dominated by a few global mega-companies, which are creating new infrastructures and mechanisms for the accumulation of capital and exploitation of human and planetary resources. Such unrestrained thirst for new resources and fields of cognitive exploitation has driven a search for ever deeper layers of data that can be used to quantify the human psyche, conscious and unconscious, private and public, idiosyncratic and general.
Increasingly, the process of quantification is reaching into the human affective, cognitive, and physical worlds. Training sets exist for emotion detection, for family resemblance, for tracking an individual as they age, and for human actions like sitting down, waving, raising a glass, or crying. Every form of biodata — including forensic, biometric, sociometric, and psychometric — are being captured and logged into databases for AI training.
The training sets for AI systems claim to be reaching into the fine-grained nature of everyday life, but they repeat the most stereotypical and restricted social patterns, re-inscribing a normative vision of the human past and projecting it into the human future. Quantification of Nature.
Land and forests were the first resources to be 'enclosed' and converted from commons to commodities. Later on, water resources were 'enclosed' through dams, groundwater mining and privatization schemes. A life-support system can be shared, it cannot be owned as private property or exploited for private profit. The commons, therefore, had to be privatized, and people's sustenance base in these commons had to be appropriated, to feed the engine of industrial progress and capital accumulation. While Shiva is referring to enclosure of nature by intellectual property rights, the same process is now occurring with machine learning — an intensification of quantified nature.
The new gold rush in the context of artificial intelligence is to enclose different fields of human knowing, feeling, and action, in order to capture and privatize those fields. While there are many good reasons to seek to improve public health, there is a real risk if it comes at the cost of a stealth privatization of public medical services.
That is a future where expert local human labor in the public system is augmented and sometimes replaced with centralized, privately-owned corporate AI systems, that are using public data to generate enormous wealth for the very few. At this moment in the 21st century, we see a new form of extractivism that is well underway: one that reaches into the furthest corners of the biosphere and the deepest layers of human cognitive and affective being.
Many of the assumptions about human life made by machine learning systems are narrow, normative and laden with error. Yet they are inscribing and building those assumptions into a new world, and will increasingly play a role in how opportunities, wealth, and knowledge are distributed. The full stack reaches much further into capital, labor and nature, and demands an enormous amount of each. The true costs of these systems — social, environmental, economic, and political — remain hidden and may stay that way for some time.
We offer up this map and essay as a way to begin seeing across a wider range of system extractions. The scale required to build artificial intelligence systems is too complex, too obscured by intellectual property law, and too mired in logistical complexity to fully comprehend in the moment. He is leading SHARE Lab, a research and data investigation lab for exploring different technical and social aspects of algorithmic transparency, digital labor exploitation, invisible infrastructures, and technological black boxes.
David S. Trebor Scholz London: Routledge, , Andrew Hurley New York: Penguin, , PDF version of the map. Acknowledgements: Our deep thanks go to Michelle Thorne and Jon Rogers at the Mozilla Foundation, who invited us to a retreat in summer where we first conceptualized this project. Thanks to Joana Moll and Meredith Whittaker for their inputs and inspirations on the first drafts of this text.
This map and essay will be on display there as part of the 'Artificially Intelligent' show from Sep 6 - Dec 31,