Books History

Notes from Kate Crawford’s Atlas of AI

p. 13 “The underlying visions of the AI field do not come into being autonomously, but instead have been constructed from a particular set of beliefs and perspectives. The chief designers of the contempoary atlas of AI are a small and homogenous group of people, based in a handful of cities, working in an industry that is currently the wealthiest in the world. Like medieval European mappae mundi, which illustrated religious and classical concepts as much as coordinates, the maps made by the AI industry are political interventions, as opposed to neutral reflections on the world.”

p. 16 Since antiquity, the business of mining has only been profitable because it does not have to account for its true costs: including environmental damage, the illness and death of miners, and the loss to the communities it displaces. In 1555, Georgius Agricola, known as the father of mineralogy, observed that “it is clear to all that there is greater detriment from mining than the value of the metals which the mining produces.”

p. 31 The mining that makes AI is noth literal and metaphorical. The next extractivism of data mining also encompasses and propels the old extractivism of traditional mining. The stack required to power artificial intelligence systems goes well beyond the multilahered technical stack of data modeling hardware, srevers and netwroks.. reaches into capital, labor and Earth’s resources… the cloud is the backbone of the artificial intelligence industry, and its made of rocks and lithium brine and crude oil”

p. 35 According to the computer manufacturer Dell, the complexities of the metals and mineral supply chain pose almost insurmountable challenges to the prodiction of conflict-free electronics components. The elements are laundered through such a vast number of entities along the chain that sourcing their provenance proves impossible 0 or so the end-product manufacturers claim, allowing them a measure of plausible deniability for any exploitative practices that drive their profits.”

p. p. 38 At the end of the 19th century, a particular Southeast Asian tree called the laquium gutta became the center of a cable boom. These trees, found mainly in Malaysia, produce a milky white natural latex called hutta-percha… rapidly became the darling of the engineering world … the solution to the problem of insulating undersea telegraphic cables to withstand harsh and varying conditions on the ocean floor. The twisted strands of copper wire needed four layers of the soft, organic tree sap to protect fhem from water intrusion and carry their electrical currents… The historian John Tully describes how local Malay, Chinese, and Dayak workers were paid little for the dangerous work of felling the trees and slowly collecting the latex. … as media scolar Nicole Starosielski writes, “Military strategists saw cables as the most efficient and secure mode of communication with the colonies – and, by implication, of control over them…. The jungles of Malaysia and Singapore were stripped: by the early 1880s the Palquium gutta had vanished.In a last-ditch effort to save their supply chain, the British passed a ban in 1883 to halt harvesting the latex, but the tree was all but extinct.”

p. 8 I argue that AI is neither artificial nor intelligent. Rather, artificial intelligence is both embodied and material, made from natural resources, fuel, human labour, infrastructure, logistics, histories and classifications. AI systems are not autonomous, rational, or able to discern anything without extensive, computationally intensivetraining with large datasets or pre-defined rules and rewards. In fact, artificial intelligence as we know it depends entirely on a much wider set of political and social structures. And due to the capital required to build AI at scale and the ways of seeing that it optimizes, AI systems are ultimately designed to serve existing dominent interests. In this sense, artificial intelligence is a registry of power.”

p. 42 ” Strubell’s team found that running only a single NLP [natural language processing] model produced more than 660,000 pounds of carvon dioxide emissions, the equivalent of five gas-powered cars over their total lifetime (including manufacturing) or 125 roundtrip flights from New York to Beijing.”

p. 56 Instead of asking whether robots will replace humans, I’m interested in how humans are increasingly treated like robots and what this means for the role of labour.. people are often performing rote tasks to shore up the impresssion that machines can do the work.”

p. 63 the experiences of crowdworkers who perform the repetitive digital tasks that underly AI systems, such as labelling thousands of hoursof training data and reviewing suspicious or harmful content. Workers do the repetitive tasks that backstop claims of AI magic, but the rarely receive credit for making the systems function.”

p. 76 Dominos Pizza has added to its kitchens machine -vision systems that inspect a finished pizza to ensure the staff made it according to prescribed standards. Surveillance apparatuses are justified for producing inputs for algorithnic scheduling systems that further modulate work time, or to glean behavioural signals that may correlate with signs of high or low work performance, or meerely sold to data brokers as a form of insight”

p. 159 Given that facial expressions are culturally variable, using them to train machine learning systems would inevitably mixtogether all sorts of different contexts, signals and expectations.

p. 173 None of these serious questions about the basis for Ekman’s claims have stopped his work from attaining a priileged role in current AI applications. Hundreds of papers cite Ekman’s view of interpretable facial expressions as tought it wer unproblematic fact, despite decades of scientific controversy. Few computer scientists have even acknowledged this literature of uncertainty”.

p, 174 WWht, with so many criticisms, has the approach of “reading emotions” from the face endured? .. we can begin to see how military research funding, policing priorities and profit motives have shaped the field…theories seemed ideal for the emerging field of computer vision because they could be automated at scale… powerful institutional and corporate investments in the validity of Ekman’s theories or metholodogies. Recognizing that emotions are not easily classified, or that they’re not reliably detectable from facial expressions, could undermine an expanding industry… the more complex issues of context, conditioning, relationaity and cultural factors are hard to reconcile with the current disciplinary approaches of computer science or the ambitions of the commercial tech sector. “

p. 206 when AI systems are deployed as part of the welfare state, they are used primarily as a way to surveil, assess, and restrict people’s access to public resources rather than as a way to provide for greater support… Michigan … “a matching algoriyjm be used to implement the state’s ‘fugitive felon’ policy, which sought automatically the disqualify indvidiuals from food assistance based on outstanding felony warrants. Between 2012 and 2015, mthe new system inaccurately matched from than 19,000 Michigan residents and automatically disqualified each of these from food assistance… in essence these systems are punitive, designed on a threat-targetting model.

p. 211 ARtificial intelligence is not an objective, universal, or neutral computational technique that makes determinations without human direction. Its systems are embedded in social, political, cultural and economic worlds, shaped by humans, institutions and imperatives that determine what they do and how they do it. They are designed to discriminate, to amplify hierarchies, and to encode narrow classifications. When applied in social contexts such as policing, the court system, health care and education, they can reproduce, optimize and amplify existing structural inequalities. This is no accident: AI systems are built to see and interven in the world in ways that primarily benefit the states, insutitutions and corporations that they serve.”

p. 226 What happens … if we begin with the commitment to a more just and sustainable world? How can we intervene to address interdependent issues of social, economic and clamte injustice. Where does technology serve that visions. And are there places where Ai should not be used, where it undermines justice? This is the basis of a renewed politics of refusal – opposing the narratives of techological inevitability that says ‘If it can be done, it will be.’ Rather than asking where Ai will be applied, merely because it can, the empasis should be on why it ought tho be applied … we can question the idea that everything should be subject to the logics of statistical prediction and profit accumulation, what Donna Haraway terms “the informatics of domination”.

Books Early modern history History Science

Podcast: Medieval eastern medicine

Another fascinator from the New Books Network: Goldsmith’s academic Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim on her new book ReOrienting Histories of Medicine – “it’s been rarely appreciated how much of the history of Eurasian medicine in the premodern period hinges on cross-cultural interactions and knowledge transmissions along these same lines of contact. Using manuscripts found in key Eurasian nodes of the medieval world”.

We think of Mongol period as of desctruction, but – what a great setting for historical novel, but Yoeli-Tlalim tells of the now Iranian city of Tabriz, the Ilkhanid Mongol court deliberately set up an intellectual hub, drawing in scholars from far afrield, where knowledge from Tibetan medicine was exchanged with “Islamic medicine”, both having been informed by Greek and Roman medicine. The city had active contacts with Byzantium and the Chinese court, and also with India. It was also a centre for astonomers and agronomists.

The author also makes an interesting point about the “mythical” elements in ancient medical texts. Rather than dismissing them, ask “what are they trying to tell us” – lots of understanding of the body, the nature of an individual etc can be gained from taking seriously. And divination or “magic” is a way of making a decision when you don’t have enough “scientific” knowledge to make a choice. And “superfoods” go a long way back – see triphala.

Talks also of Uighur medicine, from a document found in Turfan/Turpan.

Books History Politics

Notes from Crucible: The Year that Forged our World

“In the Philippines, which gained independence from the US in 1946 and gained $620 million aid package, despite sharp economic and social disparities, it was not until 1950 that the Communist Party decided that a “revolutionary situation” existed. Communists in Malaya did not operate under Soviet guidance and drew more support from the Chinese community’s resentments than from ideology. The British High Commissioner, Malcolm McDonald, concluded in 1948 that there was “little sign” of Soviet activity in the region, noting that “if you suppress a nationalist severely enough, you find him tending to communism”.

In the US, the state played a bigger role in helping business than free-market zealots would like to admit, while the heritage of government research during the war acted as a catalyst for peacetime technological development.”

Books Feminism History Politics Women's history

Notes from Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather

p. 6 “Every woman easired to own one. Watever your outlay, a plume would retain its value as an investment, as well as an adornment, kept wrapped in tissue in a box, clearned and re-curled once a year, then passed down to your daughter. Working girls saved up and clubbed together for a plume, taking it in turns to wear it on their best hat”.. In the early years of the trade, each feather had come from a wild bird, hunted down and killed in the Sahar Desert. But since ‘the Exlipse’ egg incubator was patented in 1864, ostrich farming in the arid Western Cape of southernmost Africa had taken off. Birds could not be raised in their hundreds and clipped or plucked every eight months or so, flooding the western market with so many plumes that it was hard to imagine there were enough heads left”

p.6-7 As demand for ‘plumiferous’ fashion accessories soared from the 1870s onwards, importers, brokers, auctioneers, wholesalers and feather handlers grew by the hundred. Most were concentrated around one tight area in the City of London, bordered by Aldersgate, London Wall, Bishopsgate and Old Street… the feathers would be shuttled through a cascade of treatments by Abraham Botibol’s workhands. They would be strung, dyed, washed, dyed again, dried, thrashed, trimmed, finished, parried, willowed, fashioned and curled. He might sell a single item to a millinery wholesale warehouse for 7 shillings, or direct to a customer for 30 shillings. Once attached to a ladies’ hat by a milliber and displayed in a Bond Street shop window, its value could be anything up to £5 (£500 in today’s money).

p. 37 Miss Maria Umphelby’s school for girls was filled with children who needed a substitute home or family. There were children of the British Empire, children of the Raj, orphaned children, girls somehow surplus to requirements when gentlemen fathers were widowed or remarried.Unlike the newer, more academic girls schools (North London Collegiate School, Cheltenham Ladies’ College), Hill House was run along an older, family0style model with no dormitories and many “siblings”. The 30 pupils, aged 6 to 16, all called Mrs Umphelby “Maimie”. She was the cloest to a monther most of them had.. a Revivalist Evangelical: a woman of 60 who infused her curriculum with the celebration of God’s glory. Countryside walks were done at the march while shouting out Revivalist hymns… it was hoped they would go on to become indomitable women, “a band of admirably trained daughters” who would “go forth over the wide world”. Missionary work – a home or abroad – was the unspoken subtext of their education.. Etta retuned to Blackheath aged 16 and was immediately sent abroad – to a finishing school in Lausanne… she remained impervious to the fashion manuals of the day, to the absurdly time-consuming ritual of the VIctorian ladies’ toilette and to those fashionable, constructing constumes. She returned at 18, proficient in French, to face an uncertain future.”

p. 52 “Particularly high prices were paid for the skins of unuaul birds, such as the King of Saxony bird-of-paradise, with its strange head wires, or Pesquet’s parrot, with its bright red chest feathers – both from the mountains of New Guinea… If a bird wasn’t, to a British lady, remotely familiar, then it had an otherworldly, innocent, storybook quality to it. It belonged to distant parts of the British Empire, which spooled like a nrightly coloured diorama through the Victorian mind. A bird-of-paradise, ascarlet tanager or tiny viridian hummingbird had no real back story. It wasn’t perceived as a specied with mating rituals, grooming habits, a distinctive call and hatchlings to feed. It was a commodity just liek any other – leather, ivory, tortoiseshell or ostrich feather.”


p. 84 George Frederick Watts – elderly and revered Royal Academician, considered by many to be the greatest artist of his day, produced a large, emotive oil known as The Shuddering Angel, dedicated ‘to all thos who love the beautiful and mourn over the senseless and cruel destruction of bird life and beauty”. Irridescent, lifeless plumage lies in a heap on a tombstone, over which an angel weeps, head in hands. The painting was exhibited in London’s New Callery in 1899 and caused an immediate sensation – warranting a leader in The Times.”

p. 147 “As the sun rose in the far distant Florida Everglades, a wearden on duty for the Audubon Society motored his little boat over still waters to confront a norotious egret hunter and his two sons. By the time he got near, the men were climbing back into their schooner, limp snowy egrets swinging from their hands. Guy Bradley shouted across the water that he was going to arrest them – and was shot at point blank range … Bradey’s murder made international headlines: America’s first martyr for the cause of bird protection. The same week … the playwright George Bernard Shaw took his seat at the Royal Opera House in Drury Lane for Puccini’s new opera, Madam Butterfly. He found himself behind a woman who was obscuring his view. “For this lady, who had very black hair, had stuck over her right ear the pitiable corpse of a large white bird, which looked exactly as if someone had killed it by stamping on its hreast, and then nailed it to the lady’s temple, which was presumably of sufficient solidity to hear th operation. I am not, I hope, a morbidly squeamish person but the spectacle sickened me.”

p. 148 To many eyes, such preposterous headgear undermined the thinking woman. It made her look unconsidered, even stupid. What price emancipation if she remained enslaved by fashion. .. I was curious about the future lives of these Edwardian women, helplessly in thrall to the surface of things, and was surprised to discover that many of Fabbircotti’s customers went on to do extraordinary, brave and adventurous things, spurred on by the First World War. Of course, they were facilitated by huge private incomes. But these were not mere featherheads. On Thursday 3 May 1906, Mrs Asquith – brilliant wit and socialite, second wife of the Chancellor of the Exchequer – was drawn irresistibly into the boutique on South Molton Steet and spent £2 17s (around £280 in today’s money). Two months later, she was back again, buying millinery worth £4 4s (around £415). Tall, big boned, with a long determined face, Margot Asquith understood the power of a good hat. “Clothes are the first thing that catch the eye,” she was fond of saying. Having absolutely no compunction about wearing feathers, Margot was painted by society portraitist Philip de Laszlo with a large dead bird on her head. The painting was commissioned in 1909 to mark her powerful new role as the Prime Minister’s wife.”

p. 287 “Among the many who gained from the campaign for the vote, it was particularly satisfying to discover that that Alice Battershall’s daughter Louisa, a feather worker like her mother, was also to benefit. Thanks to determined suffragist Clementina Black and her investigative team at the Women’s Industrial Council, a government trade board was created in 1919 for the oxtrich, fancy feather and artificial flower industry. A minimum wage was set, working hours monitored and basic comforts introduced. And in 1927, A Botibol and Coomapny, “the biggest in the feather trade”, was thoroughly investigated for emplower abused. Abraham’s son, Cecil, was found guilty of underpaying 27 of his 50 female employees and of keeping no wage records. Forced to pay £234 in arrears and £17 in fines (around £40,000 in today’s money), he threw up his hands and admitted that he deserved “to lose on all points”.

Books Feminism Politics

Podcast: Women in China today

Fascinating, and oh so familiar, account of the gendered pressures on women in China today. Get a degree, get a career job – but not _too_ good a job that will make too many demands on your time, get a husband by age 27, otherwise you’re at risk of being seen as “on the shelf”.

As the writer of Embodying Middle Class Gender Aspirations, Kailing Xie, who’s lived this experience herself says in a fascina, this is a very narrow window. And “marrying up” is still expected, which narrows the pool of potential husbands greatly.

Books History Podcasts Politics

Podcast: Neurodiversity Studies

Really interesting discussion of an issue of which I have only a touching acquaintance on the New Books Network.

“The neurodiversity studies paradigm is one in which autism, ADHD, dyslexia, aphantasia, and other forms of long-term neurological differences are “part of a broader spectrum of human diversity, rather than inescapably associated with deviance, disorder, or impoverished selfhood.””

A statement of the obvious, but frequently neglected: we are all neurodiverse