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16 January, 2018

Who and what will AI serve? US and China give very different answers

Artificial Intelligence is a frighteningly powerful new tool — and weapon. Who and what will it serve? In the U.S., tech giants Facebook, Google, and Amazon and their corporate agendas; in China, the needs of the public and the economy. These two models should be thought through now.

by Jim Carey

Part 3 - Tech Giants’ symbiotic relationship with the U.S. Deep State

These three tech giants sometimes complain that they don’t work in a healthy business climate in nations like China, where Facebook has been banned for not complying with government regulations, but these factors don’t seem to bother them when it comes to operating in the United States.

Facebook, for example, has become a focal point of the hysteria in the U.S. media surrounding “Russian interference” in the 2016 election. Following congressional hearings, Mark Zuckerberg apparently decided that changes were needed at Facebook, saying in a post on his social media platform that “the world feels anxious and divided, and Facebook has a lot of work to do — whether it’s protecting our community from abuse and hate [or] defending against interference by nation states.

As anyone reading this article probably knows, that portion of Zuckerberg’s comment on “interference by nation states” doesn’t only mean protection against the ever-obscuring concept of “Russian meddling,” but also the rewriting of Facebook’s algorithms (a form of AI) and policies to further censor Russian perspectives — which in turn usually means more censorship on all media critical of U.S. imperialism by labelling it “Russian propaganda”. If that isn’t bad enough, Facebook has also recently been alleged to be deleting accounts selected by U.S. and Israeli intelligence. Facebook has also lobbied the government to stop attempts at writing stronger internet privacy rules, which Google has also pushed against.

Google is a unique case with strange beginnings as a simple search engine turned tech behemoth, with a lot of the seed money coming from research groups connected to the intelligence community. The intelligence community’s aim in financing the projects that make up the base of Google’s technology related to their value as data collection tools that would serve both private industry and spy agencies. Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page both received what was essentially seed money for their company through a government-funded program at Stanford University.

This connection between the U.S. government and Google hasn’t dissipated since that initial creation. Indeed, Google has since filled its ranks with ex-intelligence personnel. This includes many people who come from the top ranks of agencies — such as Jared Cohen, who moved from the Obama State Department to Google Ideas, the company’s in-house think tank. Cohen and current Google CEO Eric Schmidt are also among the members of the company who visited Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian Embassy in the U.K. last year in what Assange believes was an attempt to glean information from him.

Then there is Amazon, perhaps the most notorious collaborator with U.S. intelligence. In fact, Amazon’s CEO — and owner of the pro-intelligence/anti-Trump Washington Post — Jeff Bezos garnered quite a bit of attention at the end of last year when he inked a $600 million contract with the CIA.

The CIA approached Amazon, having recognized the tech company’s proficiency in creating the aforementioned databases the company likes so much, and asked them to build the CIA its own. The new cloud server, built by Amazon Web Services (AWS), will reportedly store a range of CIA data. It has been confirmed that some of this data will be classified, which basically means the CIA will be storing classified data on Amazon servers. These are likely to be the most high-security cloud services online, but it is important to remember that even large clients such as Uber have had their Amazon cloud storage breached. The U.S. intelligence agencies are also often accused of being on the other side of the hacker-hacked relationship, and are suspected to have stolen data from the very tech companies they do business with.

At this point, some people will ask: “What do the tech companies get out of this relationship?

The answer is fairly simple. Companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon are allowed to act with impunity. This means that the hyper-exploitative, crony-capitalist, neoliberal views of these tech giants are applied wherever they do business.

This manipulation of the government by companies like Facebook and Amazon can best be observed at the local level, such as in the area around Silicon Valley. In San Francisco, for example, the employees of these tech companies have managed to drive up property values and make the city so exclusive that even the blue-collar employees who work for the tech companies have to sleep on buses or live in cars. These employees are often contractors which, thanks to lobbying by tech companies for the age of the “gig economy,” means they are legally denied the same health, safety, and financial protections as staff members.

The tech companies, for their part, seem to acknowledge this as a problem but often, instead of addressing it, instead build ways to ignore it, such as private bus services that keep money from public transportation. There have been proposals to curb some of these problems, such as affordable housing projects, but they are typically lobbied against either by the white collar residents in the city or by realtors making a killing in the local market. On top of all this, even if the local government did want to do more, San Francisco still manages to accrue massive budget deficits despite having measures in place such as high state and local taxes and having the seventh highest GDP and highest property values among cities in the US.

Another recent display of the incredible amount of power these companies hold over local governments is the wave of videos by city and state politicians across the country practically begging Amazon to build its second headquarters in one of their cities. And if watching spectacles such as the mayor of Kansas City reviewing Amazon products in a video to ‘charm’ Bezos, or the mayor of Gary, Indiana pleading with Bezos to move his HQ there, isn’t enough for you, it’s important to remember there have also been billions of dollars in tax breaks offered to Amazon by cities competing for its business.

These crony-capitalist practices don’t just apply to these tech companies’ physical locations. Google, Facebook, and Amazon have all taken their privileged philosophy global by hiding money in multiple tax havens to avoid paying the special (i.e., discounted) tax rates they already receive. To be fair though, it seems that these companies are planning on bringing some of this money back to the U.S., now that it will be taxed at a lower rate as a part of the new Republican tax scheme that Silicon Valley lobbied for. Some members of Silicon Valley, such as Google engineer Patri Friedman and Facebook board member Peter Thiel, have even crafted plans to go a step further — such as the ‘Seasteading Institute,’ which would allow elite technocrats to escape to floating cities free of any nation’s laws.

These tech companies also export to other countries their philosophy on how low-skill workers should be treated. One way this ties into both the economic practices of these companies and their development of AI is how they outsource their need for human interactions with AI networks to ‘teach’ those networks how to better mimic organic intelligence and human learning habits. This is best exemplified by Amazon’s ‘Mechanical Turk’ service, which outsources these “micro-tasks” to vulnerable populations in places like Gaza, sometimes for as little as $0.01 per contract. This is referred to as ‘Microwork,’ which consists of a variety of tedious tasks from tagging photographs to translating or transcribing short texts.

These are the standard practices of Silicon Valley, and just a snapshot of the many ways they’re using AI while also maintaining substantial control over any state body that could rein them in. This is what happens when capital manages to precede and overwhelm the public’s voice as politically expressed through the state in dictating how a nation’s technology should be run.

There is, however, an alternative model to this, which is now being implemented by Beijing and may just show the world how a responsible state grapples with machine intelligence.

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