In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Why We Are Failing to Understand the Societal Impact of Artificial Intelligence
  • Lorena Jaume-Palasi (bio)


Artificial Intelligence (AI)—algorithmic systems—comprises technologies the world is still trying to understand in their essence, in order to assess their impact and risks.

Nation-states and international organizations are reviewing existing laws in the public and private sectors, human rights, and ethical norms with regard to legal gaps in need of regulation. Every week a new example showcases how the current order is unable to harness the effects of this technology on human beings.1 And every second week a new "ethical" code seeks to present principles to fill a gap that public opinion fears has been opened by this technology. To a certain extent, the sense of a normative gap is justified, since the current approaches fail to understand what artificial intelligence is.

The manifestation of this technology into services and products is leading to scrutiny and evaluation of AI from a very individualistic human or consumer rights perspective. However, the products and services derived from AI are not equal to its nature. AI and algorithmic systems do not understand individuals. Conceptually, they represent ideas of the social. The way they compute and classify patterns is relational. Algorithms categorize people in fine granular groups. The [End Page 477] identity of individuals is no longer relevant. Personalization may be perceived by the user as the technical procedure for individualization, but technically, personalization is relational: it is the classification of this individual into a very specific collective of similar people.

It does not necessarily become clear to the human concerned that he or she is being classified into a collective that may not be part of the conventionally known social categories in a society. Personalized advertisement and "microtargeting" may give the impression that marketing is addressing potential consumers individually, based on information about the preferences of the individual. But technically the individual is being assigned to various categories shared with many other individuals. The connection of all these categories results in an intersectional profile encompassing more categories than the usual ones such as age, gender, and social status; and that profile is equally shared by many other individuals. This level of granularity and intersectionality is easy to confuse with individuality. The technical and conceptual mechanisms are counterintuitive and not tangible.

As a result, assessments of AI tend to focus on detecting individual damage and human rights abuses, although problematic algorithmic systems primarily discriminate against collectives without detecting individual damage.2 This is a classic effect when it comes to assessing the impact of infrastructure. The effects of the shape, standards, and rules of infrastructure mediating the flow of resources, mobility, or telecommunication can only be detected with a structural overview of the system. In this view, infrastructure is the physical Foucaultian dispositif to distribute power, create the conditions for societal inclusion or exclusion, and shape the space of a society. Michel Foucault's concept dispositif has also been translated among others as apparatus. In his interview "Confessions of the Flesh," he defined the term as

a thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, [End Page 478] philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions—in short, the said as much as the unsaid. Such are the elements of the apparatus. The apparatus itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements.

(Foucault 1980, 194)

The mobility infrastructure in a city determines the way its citizens access its geography; the infrastructure fosters or demotes inclusion. The streets in a suburb in the United States with roads but no sidewalks shape the mobility of its residents differently than the streets of Amsterdam with sidewalks, bicycle paths, and roads. Pedestrian traffic lights that have very short green intervals may generate more fluid car traffic, but they certainly present a challenge for older pedestrians.

Artificial intelligence is a new form of infrastructure. It is not a product; it is immaterial infrastructure. AI is technology that standardizes and automates processes. Everything that is a process implies a certain system and a set of standards, which can then be formalized in mathematical language...