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An AI Atlas-Mapping Uncharted Territory

Atlas Ai
Dr Archana Gulati
Published Aug 14, 2023
Updated Aug 29, 2023

This is recommended reading for anyone interested in AI regulation. It is hard to put down the ‘Atlas of AI’ by Kate Crawford. The book has eight chapters taking one through Earth, Labour, Data, Classification, Affect, State, Power and Space, leaving one simultaneously enlightened and uncomfortable, a discomfort all regulators and policymakers should experience, and is also a must-read for global policy analysts.

Humans have always hurtled towards discoveries and ‘progress’ regardless of the collateral damage and costs involved. Air travel is great but highly polluting, plastics are convenient but destroying the earth, and digital computing is revolutionary, but the e-waste it generates constitutes a global menace. Great civilizations and empires were built by exploiting fellow humans vulnerable to exploitation, and great wealth continues to be amassed by a few humans while others eke out a living. Exploitation is the way of humankind. The clock is ticking because of global warming and climate change which post facto actions cannot resolve in time. When will we learn from past mistakes? Can we pause and think about the impact of AI before rushing to deploy it?

The author explains the book’s title (and beautifully captures the enormity of consequences): “The field of AI is explicitly attempting to capture the planet in a computationally legible form. This is not a metaphor so much as the industry’s direct ambition. The AI industry is making and normalizing its own proprietary maps as a centralized God’s-eye view of human movement, communication, and labor. ….This is a desire not to create an atlas of the world but to be the atlas-the dominant way of seeing. This colonizing attempt centralizes power in the AI field: it determines how the world is measured and defined while simultaneously denying that this is an inherently political activity. “

This literary journey is one worth taking. It keeps one riveted, starting in the lithium mines of Nevada, Malaysian rubber plantations and Inner Mongolia, taking us through the impact on labour, surveillance capitalism, superimposed rationalization of complex phenomena, ethics of affect recognition (‘the idea that facial expressions hold the key to revealing a person’s inner emotional state’), AI as a tool of state power, and finally explains why we need to fight back against ‘progress’ characterized by ‘abstraction’ and ‘extraction’ and why we must insist on privacy and data protection, equity, and human rights.