Are artificial intelligence and Teslas as brutal to people and the planet as the extractive industry? The researcher Kate Crawford tries to make the hidden costs of the technologies visible.
Kate Crawford stands on stage and shows the cage to make the audience shudder. The 2016 Amazon patent on the screen behind her is intended to symbolize the power of machines over humans: the sketch shows a robotic cart on which a human-sized cage encloses the warehouse worker to protect him from fully automated logistics robots buzzing around, get the packages off the shelves. Man as a foreign body worthy of protection between machines.
Amazon has long since stated that it never really intended to build such a cage. But as an image for the fears that the high technology of the tech companies causes, it is definitely good for Crawford. She conducts research at USC Annenberg in California and for Microsoft and is one of the most prominent critics of artificial intelligence (AI).
In the Berlin Arena Hall, in the middle of which she speaks, the stands around her promise the future. At the big digital conference Republica, the Australian warns of the same future. This Wednesday evening she wants to show what is behind AI and other tech products. For Crawford, it’s like oil and diamonds: an “extractive” industry that sucks up raw materials and energy, leaves waste in its wake and abuses human bodies.
AI is also getting closer and closer to people in everyday life. Translation programs like Deep L, that facilitate communication with exchange students or Ukrainian refugees, as well as Google Maps, which predicts the expected traffic jam, for example on Saturday at 4 p.m. using historical and current traffic data, work so well thanks to machine learning, a subcategory of AI.
First of all, artificial intelligence needs a lot of energy
Many people imagine AI as neutral, glossy robots or perfect, autonomous software. AI is a promise to make people’s lives easier, more efficient, maybe even perfect in the invisible. For years, Crawford has been researching the economic relationships behind the closed surfaces of Amazon’s Echo devices and Apple’s iPads. According to her, it’s about the exploitation of raw materials, human labor and the goal of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk to conquer space themselves: “stones, meat and rockets,” as Crawford says.
“Artificial intelligence is neither artificial nor intelligent.”
That also means fraudulent labeling. Many people imagine AI as neutral, glossy robots or perfect, autonomous software, but: “Artificial intelligence is neither artificial nor intelligent,” says Crawford. People feed software data and tag millions of images so it can learn. They scrape the basic materials of technology out of the ground. However, the user only encounters the designer status symbols Echo and Tesla Model 3.
For her book, the «AI Atlas», Crawford traveled the world to places where the system behind AI becomes visible. She takes the audience to the Indonesian workers who use suction tubes to extract tin from the sandy soil of their islands. On African rubbish dumps, where the e-waste is burning. To Bolivia, the land of lithium. The Congo with its cobalt mines. To China as the workbench of artificial intelligence. To the former gold and silver town of Silver Peak in Nevada.
This is where Musk comes in. A Tesla uses more than 60 kilograms of lithium for its batteries, one reason Musk built a key factory in Nevada, not far from Silver Peak. With Crawford’s self-taken photos of empty launch pads for Bezos’ Blue Origin rockets, the talk has something of the slideshow feel, except that it’s not about adventure stories from the desert, but about an invisible economic ecosystem. Invisible to people when they tell Google Maps where they want to go or speak to their Echo to order from Amazon. The language software of the corporations eats up huge amounts of electricity.
Crawford once again illustrated with Jeff Bezos that there is much more to a casually said order via Echo than a beautifully designed gadget. He assured his shareholders that a special algorithm for the shift plan would rotate workers in the warehouses through different activities so that the same muscle groups are not always used. She speaks of “monitoring down to the deep tissue of the workers”.
All to help Bezos and Musk fulfill their boyhood dreams of space exploration? After all, the exploitation of raw materials in space is the next extraction dimension. This is where things get a bit sub-complex with Crawford. That Bezos is so fascinated by old sci-fi novels that he’ll plunder the land like a brutal white settler and then with “phallic” missiles wants to leave the mere mortals behind on the desolate planet also sounds pretty much like fiction.
Many people sitting in the audience here at Republica and listening to her work with AI technology themselves. Crawford advises them: “Demand more justice in the systems you build!” After all, artificial intelligence is not made by Jeff Bezos alone, but by many people.