Colonialism and the AI arms race

I haven’t thought that much about the relationship between AI and geopolitics before, but today I read two articles that shed some light on the issue. In doing so they also raise some pretty important questions about the whole purpose of AI: What do we want it to be for?

Reading them together also reminded me the extent to which artificial intelligence is bound up with the military industrial context. With this fact woven into the very fabric of AI, it becomes clear that it’s not enough to consider the political and social implications as an additional extra that’s secondary to the technology. The political and social dimension must come first.

Why the idea of an AI arms race with China is stupid

First off, on The Intercept, Sam Biddle writes powerfully about the nonsense of the idea of the U.S. entering an AI arms race with China.

Primarily taking aim at this piece on Politico, which expresses a fear that the U.S. is “ceding the future of AI to China,” Biddle goes on to attack the broader narrative in US political discourse that sees the U.S as in competition with China when it comes to AI investment and innovation.

All anyone can manage to do is bark that we need more, more, more AI, more investments, more R&D, more collaborations, more ventures, more breakthroughs, simply more AI. Maybe we’ll worry about what we needed all of this for in the first place once we’ve beaten China there. Or maybe an algorithm will explain it to us, along with the locations of all our family members and a corresponding score that quantifies their social utility and biometric trustworthiness.

With the bulk of the U.S. political and media class incapable of taking a nuanced position on artificial intelligence, it would seem, to follow Biddle’s line of argument, that we’re collapsing into a dangerous journey whereby AI is seen - bizarrely - as an end in itself. Biddle notes that China’s use of AI serves the state’s goals of greater control and surveillance over its population - whether the U.S. simply wants to follow suit, remains to be seen.

It’s probably worth seeing this rhetoric in the context of the ongoing trade war mentioned at the top. Biddle doesn’t go in for this angle, but it’s certainly clear that Trump’s move to restrict China’s and American business relations only emphasises the importance of this kind of innovation, if only as a grand and empty gesture.

The colonialist impulses of Africa’s AI startup scene

Meanwhile, Abebe Birhane has written on AI-optimism in the African startup scene. “Wherever the topic of technological innovation arises,” she writes, “what we typically find is tech advocates offering rationales for attempting to digitize every aspect of life, often at any cost.”

For a continent that is looking to grow and harness the potential of technological innovation (many of which come out of the universities and corporations of the U.S. and China), AI must feel like a huge opportunity. Being critical might even feel like being critical of African success - if developed parts of the world can do it, why shouldn’t emerging nations too?

The problems emerge, however, once you ask who these opportunities are for, exactly?

For Birhane, the optimism and popularity of artificial intelligence in the African tech scene mirrors colonialism. Insofar as AI instrumentalizes data created by humans, it does so to effect behavioural changes that have a positive impact on profit.

The parallels with western colonialism are all too clear: “this discourse of ‘mining’ people for data is reminiscent of the colonizer attitude that declares humans as raw material free for the taking.”

What’s AI for, exactly?

What ties Birhane and Biddle’s pieces together is a simple question: what’s AI for?

Biddle’s commentators and U.S. politicians, and Birhane’s entrepreneurs and policy makers don’t really seem to have an answer.

But taking the two pieces together, it is possible to see one reason why the great AI arms race feels so urgent for the U.S. establishment. It’s all about the imperialistic scramble. You can almost imagine white papers and spokes people talking in inanities empowering the developing world through innovation.

Think of it this way: combine Africa’s rapid population growth with relatively youthful institutions and governments, and even small pockets of political instability, then you have a big ‘business opportunity’ for both global superpowers. The one that can innovate at the fastest rate is ultimately going to be best placed to exploit it.