The problems AI has today go back centuries

The problems AI has today go back centuries

  • Algorithmic discrimination and “ghost work” didn’t appear by accident.
  • Understanding their long, troubling history is the first step toward fixing them.

In March of 2015, protests broke out at the University of Cape Town in South Africa over the campus statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes, a mining magnate who had gifted the land on which the university was built, had committed genocide against Africans and laid the foundations for apartheid. Under the rallying banner of “Rhodes Must Fall,” students demanded that the statue be removed. Their protests sparked a global movement to eradicate the colonial legacies that endure in education.

The events also provoked Shakir Mohamed, a South African AI researcher at DeepMind, to reflect on what colonial legacies might exist in his research as well. In 2018, just as the AI field was beginning to reckon with problems like algorithmic discrimination, Mohamed penned a blog post with his initial thoughts. In it he called on researchers to “decolonise artificial intelligence”—to reorient the field’s work away from Western hubs like Silicon Valley and engage new voices, cultures, and ideas for guiding the technology’s development.

Now in the wake of renewed cries for “Rhodes Must Fall” on Oxford University’s campus, spurred by George Floyd’s murder and the global antiracism movement, Mohamed has released a new paper along with his colleague William Isaac and Oxford PhD candidate Marie-Therese Png. It fleshes out Mohamed’s original ideas with specific examples of how AI challenges are rooted in colonialism, and presents strategies for addressing them by recognizing that history.