By: Asma Mansoor
Associate Editor: Muneera Bano (@DrMuneeraBano)
In a world marked by economic, racial and gender-based hierarchies, can AI be decolonial?
If not, can it become decolonial?
These questions might elicit criticism since computing and its associated fields are generally assumed to be democratic in flavour, working in a realm where constructs such as race and gender are thought to be reduced to irrelevant abstractions. But it is precisely this reduction that I find problematic specifically in a world in which many regions are still experiencing a colonial hangover in the form of neocolonial exploitation. This exploitation, galvanized by various Capitalist corporate structures, manifests itself via technological interventions, such as surveillance and drone technology, biotechnology and the abuse and degradation of indigenous environments in the garb of progress. Since the fifteenth century onwards, European colonization has been supplemented by technological advancements which have helped consolidate the various Others of the West. As cyberspace expands and AI becomes more autonomous, what is gradually becoming a matter of concern for numerous people living in the Global South like myself, are the possible colonial implications of these advancements. Our fears are not unfounded. The CIA’s Weeping Angel program, that permitted the installation of spying software on smart TVs, was sanctioned for devices headed to countries suspected of harbouring and supporting terrorism. This reflects how surveillance technologies are operating as tools of Othering in the hands of Euro-American power structures, inferiorizing peoples and countries. Technology in all its forms is helping supra-national Capitalist conglomerates to become increasingly colonial as they impose their sovereign rights to regulate and manipulate the technology that they ration out to states and groups as we saw in the case of Facebook. So to question whether AI, as a component of this technological colonization, can be decolonial becomes a rather loaded question which cannot be answered in a simple manner.
What I imply by decoloniality is not an end of colonization, per se. I take it in the connotations of Walter Mignolo who defines decoloniality as a non-hierarchical inter-epistemological exchange that encourages epistemic disobedience and delinking from its colonial epistemologies in order to build a world where many worlds can exist in a state of non-hierarchical epistemic osmosis. However, our world is also an age of the Empire, where the Empire, according to Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, is the sovereign power that regulates global exchanges. As opposed to the decolonial ethos which advocates a cross-cultural exchange of knowledge without centralizing any mode of thinking, this Empire also encourages this decentered osmosis, at least in theory if not in practice. What makes the operations of this global Empire different from decolonial politics is that the Empire upholds its epistemic sovereignty and cannot afford to decentralize its economic, technological and intellectual supremacy. Computing and AI are vital components in this global regulatory apparatus.
Therefore, I believe that at the present moment in time, AI is not decolonial unless the formerly colonized appropriate it for their interests, a task which I am convinced is fraught with obstacles. AI responds to the master because it is programmed by the master who needs to uphold global hierarchies and inequalities. It operates as the Golem in the hands of the Global Capitalist masters, ensuring on their part who is to be excluded and who is to be included and the extent to which they are to be included.
Biases are encoded within its very algorithmic genes as the works of Safiya Umoja Noble and David Beer indicate. It inherits the aesthetic biases of its makers, including those governing the perceptions of race and gender. An international beauty contest judged by AI machines in 2016 revealed that these machines did not consider dark skin as beautiful. The driverless cars are more likely to hit people with darker skin. AI-based voice assistants have been reported to respond less to different accents or the voices of women.
Like Macaulay’s Minute Men, AI is also a product of colonial mentality. It does not only absorb the colonisers’ ways of knowing but also the prescriptions of bodily aesthetics. However, at the current moment in time, AI is better than Macaulay’s Minute Men who experienced displaced and schismatic identities in their effort to become like the Masters. The AI, at present, is not aware of these complexes. Perhaps, in a few years, as it gains sentience, AI would develop similar complexes in its efforts to become more human. At the moment, it is fully complicit with the neocolonial agenda wherein all Others are equal but some Others are more Other than Others. It keeps an eye on rogue elements, further marginalizing those who are already marginalized. It is not decolonial precisely because it is supplementing the hierarchies that decoloniality sets out to dismantle.
So what needs to be done? Perhaps, a more acute awareness of what goes into its programing needs to be rethought and that can be done by taking on board, social, philosophical and literary theorists. Perhaps then can the decolonization of AI truly begin.