Aziz Huq Reviews "Atlas of AI"

Can We Democratize AI?

Atlas of AI
by Kate Crawford
Yale University Press, 2021, 336 pp.

At my suburban English secondary school in the early 1990s, sixteen-year-olds took a test to determine their optimal careers. After my exam, I was marched off to a two-week internship at an actuary’s office. The predictor foretold that I, too, would be a predictor, shuffling mortality data to compute debit and credit columns for an interminable future.

Even when I was a teenager, the idea of using historical data to make predictions was old hat. The Equitable Life Assurance Society, founded in 1762, underwrote risk by mining its own historical records. Starting in the 1830s, British firms used historical records to calculate fire insurance premiums. In 1903, New York Life adopted a nationwide insurance rating system using demographic and health data. By the 1950s, the Nielsen Company was collecting and exploiting television viewing data from hundreds of homes to predict future hits.

What now is known as “artificial intelligence” involves a similar process of informed guesswork, albeit with exponentially more data and harder math. AI-based prediction is now associated with the emergence of internet search, social-media platforms, the “gig” economy, and high-frequency trading. Prediction in this guise looms increasingly large in the economy. A UN document from 2019, for example, estimates that 71,966 Google searches are made globally every second.

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