Mapping Technology’s Reach: Anatomy of an AI System

‘Alexa, turn on the hall lights’

The cylinder springs into life. ‘OK.’ The room lights up….

This is an interaction with Amazon’s Echo device. 3 A brief command and a response is the most common form of engagement with this consumer voice-enabled AI device. But in this fleeting moment of interaction, a vast matrix of capacities is invoked: interlaced chains of resource extraction, human labor and algorithmic processing across networks of mining, logistics, distribution, prediction and optimization. The scale of this system is almost beyond human imagining. How can we begin to see it, to grasp its immensity and complexity as a connected form?

The graphic and passage above are excerpts from Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler, “Anatomy of an AI System: The Amazon Echo As An Anatomical Map of Human Labor, Data and Planetary Resources,” The AI Now Institute and SHARE Lab, (September 7, 2018)

In their stunning new work, which comprises both an essay and a vast infographic, Crawford and Joler strip away the smooth exterior of Amazon’s Echo to reveal the global network of human labor, data, and planetary resources that make this technology possible.

…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.

Read the essay and see the infographic here.

Author: Ben Rubin

Artist and designer Ben Rubin was named Director of the Center for Data Arts in January, 2016. Rubin’s innovative applications of media and information technology have been seen at museums, public spaces, and performance venues around the world. Rubin’s best-known work includes the media installations Moveable Type (2007), a permanent artwork for the lobby of the New York Times building, and Listening Post (2002); both installations were created in collaboration with Mark Hansen. Rubin’s groundbreaking projection design for Arguendo, a play by Elevator Repair Service, earned him an Obie Award in 2014. In 2013, with Mark Hansen and Jer Thorp, Rubin co-founded the Office for Creative Research, where he led many data visualization design and user interface projects. Rubin’s design clients have included Microsoft, EES Surgical Instruments, HP, and IBM, as well as architects SOM, Pelli Clarke Pelli, DS+R, and Ennead. Rubin received his BA in Computer Science and Semiotics from Brown University in 1987, and his MS Vis. from the MIT Media Lab in 1989.

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