Insightful newsletter of Drishtikone: Issue #216 - Coloniality of AI
Big Data, Machine Learning and Large scale computation along with Artificial Intelligence will define the future of humanity. Will it be more equitable or a new colonial enterprise?
“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won't come in.” ― Isaac Asimov
When Megasthenes wrote his book Indica around 30 BC, he talked about different groups within Indian society. He pointed to seven different types. The most highly regarded were the ‘philosophers’ or Yogis as we know them. They would guide people and were the most honored. But also the worst off in society. (Read here Source) Incidentally, the Brit who translated the text called these groups “seven castes.” Difficult to escape prejudices, even in semantics! There were no Brahmins or Shudras.
None of the major travelers mentioned anything about any debilitating caste system in their memoirs as well.
So how did such a thing come to hurt the Indian society and also define it? The answer lies in how the anthropologists, historians, and sociologists that came to write defining treatises on India were Christian missionaries with one aim - convert the ‘pagans.’ And, they were clear that their main objective was to “Destroy Brahmanism, root, and branch…” – utterly annihilate it. Why? Because the Brahmins, as they called them, were the toughest people to convert! (read Imperialism by Narratives – When Hindus have 'nothing to give up')
The imperatives of colonial power grab - mentally and psychologically subverting the ruled - came to describe those people for generations to come. Even now, in American school textbooks, the Caste system is universally sold as the most defining aspect of Hindus, when a careful look at history tells us that it was imposed by a colonial power for the purpose of colonial subjugation and slavery.
That is how semantics, assumptions, and definitions within the larger literature and narratives work.
As the world moves to a future of Artificial Intelligence-based systems, people assume that the biases, prejudices, and the mala-fide narratives that human minds carry will be redundant. Well, that may not be the case at all. AI may be a mirror of our own world and have the potential to redefine the winners and losers in the neo-colonial restructuring. All, with prejudices and bigotry built-in!
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The structures of domination of one man by another have been deep and mostly emerged from the European and Arab societies. There are two main forms, which are used interchangeably though having a nuanced difference, that have been the forms of domination. Imperialism and Colonialism.
Although imperialism and colonialism focus on the suppression of another, if colonialism refers to the process of a country taking physical control of another, imperialism refers to the political and monetary dominance, either formally or informally. Colonialism is seen to be the architect deciding how to start dominating areas and then imperialism can be seen as creating the idea behind conquest cooperating with colonialism. Colonialism is when the imperial nation begins a conquest over an area and then eventually is able to rule over the areas the previous nation had controlled. Colonialism's core meaning is the exploitation of the valuable assets and supplies of the nation that was conquered and the conquering nation then gaining the benefits from the spoils of the war. (Source: Painter, Joe; Jeffrey, Alex (2009). Political Geography)
Imperialism sets the stage for the suppressor to take over the actual physical control. Over the past few decades, physical control of territory may have become tough. At least in an overt manner.
But the structures created to exercise domination over other people by the European and American powers remain intact. That is where the concept of coloniality of power comes from.
The "coloniality of power" is an expression coined by Anibal Quijano to name the structures of power, control, and hegemony that have emerged during the modernist era, the era of colonialism, which stretches from the conquest of the Americas to the present. (Source)
It isn’t just power being exercised. But a hegemonic power to control others.
The age of colonialism started after Columbus came in touch with the natives in the Americas and Europe used that wealth and riches that slavery provided to build a structure of coloniality.
The Spanish conquest of the Americas provided Europe with a means of entry into the world economy: money. Ironically, the massive influx of gold and silver corrupted and depressed Spain itself. Its vitality fled to the Americas, while the ability to use Europe's new wealth moved north, to the shipping and banking companies of England and Holland. 1700 marks a moment of consolidation of an Atlantic economy: and trans-Atlantic commerce in agricultural goods and metals between the Americas to Europe; the codification of slavery in the English colonies of North America; and English and Dutch control of shipping trade to the east. In 200 years, the indigenous population of the Caribbean region, and much of Mexico and Peru, had been decimated, and the slave trade that replenished it with Africans had become the most profitable industry in the entire Atlantic economy. The so-called age of enlightenment opened and flourished with the dark groans of dark men and women in the unlit holds of ships, carried to a darker destiny, while pouring untold wealth into the vaults of Europe. It shifted the center of the world economy to the Atlantic. It was not Europe that put America on the map. It was the Americas -- the land of the Americas, the seizure and transformation of that land into European property, the destruction of the societies that had lived on that land, and the seizure of African people to be enslaved on that land -- that put Europe on the map. (Source)
The coloniality - structures that were created to maintain dominance over the local population, for example, necessitated the destruction of the native social ways and demonizing the existing set up while creating fissures.
Even though India and Hinduism, in particular, has become synonymous with Caste System, the fact is that professional historians and philologists like Nicholas Dirks, GS Ghurye, Richard Eaton, David Shulman, and Cynthia Talbot in their various readings of the pre-colonial written records in royal court documents and traveler accounts have found mention of any caste system either missing or hardly there. Some of the early British commentators wrote at that time that caste system was a useless way to understand India and something that makes no sense in view of ground realities.
WR Cornish, who supervised census operations in the Madras Presidency in 1871, wrote that "… regarding the origin of caste we can place no reliance upon the statements made in the Hindu sacred writings. Whether there was ever a period in which the Hindus were composed of four classes is exceedingly doubtful". Similarly, CF Magrath, leader and author of a monograph on the 1871 Bihar census, wrote, "that the now meaningless division into the four castes alleged to have been made by Manu should be put aside". Anthropologist Susan Bayly writes that "until well into the colonial period, much of the subcontinent was still populated by people for whom the formal distinctions of caste were of only limited importance, even in parts of the so-called Hindu heartland… The institutions and beliefs which are now often described as the elements of traditional caste were only just taking shape as recently as the early 18th Century". (Source)
India, a remarkably diverse and complex yet much harmonious society was broken down into a ‘simpler’ union for the enabling the British to govern it. Colonialism’s needs, you see. The caste system provided a reductionist tool to wipe out the diversity and yet create fissures and divisions.
Injection of a false premise and narrative created a monster and thrust upon an entire population which had nothing to even do with it! Books, treatises, laws, constitution, and even social benefits and politics were built upon this false demon’s curse.
Why care about coloniality in today’s age?
Why is this important now?!
Because the systems and algorithms for tomorrow’s social structures - whether they are in the form of social media platforms or analytical processes - are being informed by the same coloniality. As this intriguing article in MIT Technology Review suggests - the problems that Artificial Intelligence has today are rooted in the coloniality that has taken shape centuries ago. Karen Hao, the senior AI reporter at MIT Technology Review writes.
The ties between algorithmic discrimination and colonial racism are perhaps the most obvious: algorithms built to automate procedures and trained on data within a racially unjust society end up replicating those racist outcomes in their results. But much of the scholarship on this type of harm from AI focuses on examples in the US. Examining it in the context of coloniality allows for a global perspective: America isn’t the only place with social inequities. “There are always groups that are identified and subjected,” Isaac says. (Source)
Is that even true? Do prejudice, racism, and bigotry seep into the AI algorithm surreptitiously? Here is a powerful example of how this perpetuates.
How do you mitigate this?
Now, Karen’s idea with respect to creating a Decolonial AI is to include a diverse representation of people and interests.
The benefit of examining the harmful impacts of AI through this lens, the researchers argue, is the framework it provides for predicting and mitigating future harm. Png believes that there’s really no such thing as “unintended consequences”—just consequences of the blind spots organizations and research institutions have when they lack diverse representation. (Source)
But the larger question is that those who were subjugated and tinkered as imperial subjects while the colonial masters injected false narratives and structures that were not even part of the subjects’ history - done merely for the ease of suppression - can they really represent themselves?
Is identity-based representation the real way to decolonialize future AI? Or to decontaminate the histories, anthropologies, and sociologies that have been thrust upon the erstwhile marginalized and the ruled?
And, then the real question is how do you roll back the devil that was unleashed by a colonial power in the hapless populations as their identities even when they weren’t true of them? The caste system, for example!
With the coming in of Artificial Intelligence as a tool of economic, social and military domination in the future, we are looking at a redefinition of the existing power structures.
“Artificial intelligence is the future... Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world,” declared Vladimir Putin, speaking before a group of Russian students and journalists in September 2017. Three days later, Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and Tesla, went even further in a tweet: “Competition for AI superiority at national level most likely cause of WW3 imo [in my opinion].” (Source)
Yes, the AI machinery is fueled by content that bears the contamination of coloniality. But it’s power is in the hands of those who have the means and intelligence. That is changing.
Most commentators are calling out the fortunes of the future world as a battle between the American and the Chinese systems.
In these new emerging structures, while Europe - given its passive trajectory - may at best be able to salvage a position marked as “cyber-vassalization.”
Africa will see a return of slavery of another kind. The “cyber-colonization.”
The convergence of Big Data, Machine Learning, and the increasing Computational power will create a system of Artificial Intelligence-powered architecture that can help a few actors and powers monopolize the rest of the world.
Contrary to the common notion according to which the digital revolution necessarily involves economic decentralization, it is actually possible that AI may cause, or reinforce, an overall trend toward the centralization of power in the hands of a few actors. These digital empires would benefit from economies of scale and the acceleration of their concentration of power in the economic, military, and political fields thanks to AI. They would become the major poles governing the totality of international affairs, returning to a “logic of blocs.” These new public-private digital empires would extend to the continental scale, especially in the case of the American and Chinese empires, while other actors, such as Europe, would adopt strategies of non-alignment. (Source)
Knowledge and education systems were used by the British to embed self-hatred in Indians, specifically the Hindus. It was a mechanism to wipe out any challenge to their authority as colonial rulers.
And, semantics of the knowledge systems is where it all starts.
So let us look at the equivalent for Artificial Intelligence. In AI, the language is not just a means but the code with embedded intelligence.
For example, OpenAI is a company founded by Elon Musk, Sam Altman and others. It is an AI research laboratory that has a for-profit and a non-profit arm. It has created a language structural model called Generative Pre-Training (GPT) for AI systems.
GPT-2 stands for “Generative Pre-Training 2”: generative, because we are generating text; pre-training, because instead of training the model for any one specific task, we’re using unsupervised “pre-training” such that the general model can perform on a variety of tasks; and 2, because it’s the second model using this approach, following the first GPT model. (Source)
Now, OpenAI Inc. has created the structure for its third generation model - the GPT-3. An auto-regressive language model with 175 billion parameters.
OpenAI recently published GPT-3, the largest language model ever trained. GPT-3 has 175 billion parameters and would require 355 years and $4,600,000 to train - even with the lowest priced GPU cloud on the market. (Source)
A few OpenAI researchers looked at GPT-3 and its characteristics. Among other things they shared “concerns about bias, fairness, and broader societal impacts, and attempt a preliminary analysis of GPT-3’s characteristics in this regard.” (Download the study here - Source)
One of the areas in the “Malicious uses of language models” that they looked at was “Fairness, Bias, and Representation.” They found that these models carried the stereotypes and biases in them for religious and racial identities.
The stereotypes that proliferate in the internet and literature do inform the language models are create biases and prejudices.
When they looked at the sentiment prevalent in the model with respect to race, they found that racial prejudices were deeply embedded.
Indians and Asians (Chinese etc) had highly positive sentiments, while Black, White and Middle-eastern had the lowest (Blacks being the worst off consistently).
Now see what happens in case of religions. What is Hinduism associated with?
The false and divisive narratives that are built by those who follow an agenda start to inform the next-gen language models. Mega machine learning model, created by OpenAI, that will write tomorrow’sop-eds, poems, articles, and even operating code!
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A society’s culture seeps and impacts every area and organization. Here is an interesting discussion on why Arabs keep losing wars. Whether in Iraq, against ISIS, or the 6-day war against Israel. Here are some random notes from the video. These issues stem from the social norms and cultural ways of Arabic society.
Arab junior officers are well trained on the technical aspects of their weapons and tactical know-how, but not in leadership
Training tends to be unimaginative, cut and dried, and not challenging.
Most Arab officers treat enlisted soldiers like sub-humans
The idea of taking care of one's men is found only among the most elite units
Decisions are made and delivered from on high, with very little lateral communication. This leads to a highly centralized system, with authority hardly ever delegated.
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