Review of Kate Crawford’s “Atlas of AI”

By Ellen Nantau

In Atlas of AI (Yale 2021), Kate Crawford takes an ambitious and innovative approach to addressing misconceptions surrounding artificial intelligence (AI). Through the course of her book, she reveals the human and planetary resources being appropriated at every stage in AI industry supply chains and their associated social and ecological impacts. In doing so, Crawford irrevocably dispels the illusion that portrays AI as a closed system, of a non-human mind existing free of “social, cultural, historical, and political forces” (Crawford 2021, 4-5). The journey on which Crawford takes readers begins in the mines of Nevada, where the materials needed for the construction of lithium batteries are extracted from the Earth. These batteries supply the power for everything from cellular devices to electric vehicles, and Crawford uses the journey of lithium from Earth to technology to trash heap – the cycle of extraction-consumption-disposal – to begin her illustration of the effects of large-scale computation, effects that Crawford writes can be found in “the atmosphere, the oceans, the earth’s crust, the deep time of the planet, and the brutal impacts on disadvantaged populations around the world” (28). From there, Crawford explores the human labour upon which AI is built and the human data that feeds the insatiable AI industry. Further chapters address the social implications of industry classification practices; the controversy behind industry promises of an AI capable of recognizing and displaying emotions; and the role of AI in questions of state power. The result of these chapters is a comprehensive illustration of the connections between AI, human, and environment.

While Crawford is not the first author to point out ways in which AI is impacting human life and society, her use of the concept of an “atlas” exposes the issues at hand at new breadth – on a planetary scale – and with a new degree of clarity, making this book an important read. An atlas is a collection of separate images, tables, or other information that, when taken together, offer unique insight into an area or topic. In Crawford’s atlas, AI becomes the subject of study, as she uncovers the multitude of interactions it has with different groups of people from across the globe. Because of this, Atlas of AI contains perspectives on these technologies that have traditionally been ignored. Crawford manages to combine her many angles of approach and the examples she presents into a complete roadmap that guides readers to discover the ways in which AI technologies and the industries surrounding it draw on and feed into human life. It is far from a small task; however, using her unique approach and an impressive amount of research, Crawford has created an effective, approachable, and engaging read that will change the ways in which we view AI.


Ellen Nantau is a licensed pharmacist who is presently working on an MA in the Women and Gender Studies Program at Saint Mary’s University.

Image source: https://katecrawford.net/

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