In a week where the United Nations announced that 80% of their Sustainable Development Goals are now “weak”, “stalled”, or have “gone into reverse” the U.K. Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, announced a package of AI development programs to be launched in November with the eyebrow-raising aim of using them to “accelerate delivery of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals” whilst at the same time arguing that:
“It is about making sure that people around the world have better lives, [which] will reduce the drivers of mass migration. It’s about making the world better for them, but it’s also about protecting British interests.”
Chief among these is an ‘AI for Development’ program to build local AI skills in Africa. This will be paired with a Complex Risk Analytics Fund which will use AI to “prevent crises before they happen”, with conflict and humanitarian crises being listed as the explicit targets for these algorithms. The U.K. has pledged £1 million to this fund, with additional funds coming from Germany, the US, the Netherlands, and Finland.
Despite Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden’s recent statement emphasising AI as a democratising tool for all, the significant amounts of money involved in this context challenge that idea. Big tech is a playground for the rich, and the government’s brazen focus on the predictive potential of this technology carries a sinister undertone. Whilst few will object to AI-powered advances in environmental protection, water stress solutions, or modelling ecological trajectories, Cleverly’s emphasis on promoting AI “innovation” in Africa serves as a reminder of the market dynamics these tools will also serve; those markets will inevitably hunger for information about people.
Big tech is a playground for the rich, and the government’s brazen focus on the predictive potential of this technology carries a sinister undertone.
The complex information used to predict the crises of tomorrow will include the same mass-personalised data used to build advertising profiles, identify political demographics, and construct information harvesting tools to steer society without its knowledge or consent. The ambition to collect and process data on a massive scale, which can be both effective and profitable, will as a by-product create a marketplace for future surveillance capitalism.
As with everything AI-related, it is telling that its advocates frequently employ the language of speed. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals stutter and crumble as millions are tossed back into poverty, yet Cleverly wants us to “accelerate” towards these goals in chariots of ineffable code, eyes fixed forwards on a phantasmal, hallucinogenic prize as we crash into a hungry future’s salivating maw.