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Your Amazon Echo didn’t build itself. This researcher is tracking AI’s social and environmental consequences

Your Amazon Echo didn’t build itself. This researcher is tracking AI’s social and environmental consequences
[Photo illustration: Daisy Korpics; illustrations: Anatomy of an AI System]


“AI is being fed directly into the bloodstream of society, and in many cases without sufficient checks and balances,” says Kate Crawford, a professor, principal researcher at Microsoft Research, and cofounder of New York University’s AI Now, the world’s first academic research institute dedicated to the social impact of artificial intelligence. Last year, Crawford partnered with data-viz guru Vladan Joler to create “Anatomy of an AI System,” a map and research paper demonstrating the real-world consequences of developing and manufacturing the Amazon Echo. The 23-by-16.5-foot black-and-white map illustrates how an Echo is made, from the geological processes that create the rare-earth metals in the Echo’s chips to the digital laborers who build the training data sets for AI systems to the submarine cables that carry information between servers on different continents. The paper highlights the radical differences in income distribution between Amazon executives and the workers who enable its vast infrastructure, as well as its devastating environmental impacts. The project has been exhibited at museums around the world, and Crawford has presented it to leaders in France, Germany, Spain, and Argentina.

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