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Barranco District, Peru — Photo by @andresurena

Revisiting the Anatomy of An AI system

The Amazon Echo as an anatomical map of human labor, data and planetary resources

One of the most riveting reads on artificial intelligence hardware that I have ever read is the anatomy of an AI system written by Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler in 2018. It made me increasingly aware of this issue. It is perhaps partly the reason why I made this connection part of my TEDx talk in February 2020

I think the perspective of understanding the connections that make these type of products possible both in terms of the material, yet also in terms of the labour involved is one that acknowledges the commodity.

Commodity: “In economics, a commodity is an economic good or service that has full or substantial fungibility: that is, the market treats instances of the good as equivalent or nearly so with no regard to who produced them.”

These AI product such as Alexa, Google Home and a wide variety of others are situated in a global interchange of materials and goods.

Of course, this should be obvious, but many do not think about it to any great extent.

Take lithium as an example.

“The Salar, the world’s largest flat surface, is located in southwest Bolivia at an altitude of 3,656 meters above sea level. It is a high plateau, covered by a few meters of salt crust which are exceptionally rich in lithium (Fig.2), containing 50% to 70% of the world’s lithium reserves. 4 The Salar, alongside the neighboring Atacama regions in Chile and Argentina, are major sites for lithium extraction. This soft, silvery metal is currently used to power mobile connected devices, as a crucial material used for the production of lithium-Ion batteries. It is known as ‘grey gold.’ Smartphone batteries, for example, usually have less than eight grams of this material.” (Crawford & Joler, 2018)

As such most of the resource used in much of modern electronics is located largely in a few places, as such this digital-everything-everywhere is physically grounded in place.

Alongside this, there are limits to what you can open. The authors remind us that Amazon tells users that they cannot open up and repair their Echo, because this will void the warranty.

In a way we do not want to open this pandora’s box of responsibility.

The authors quoting Liam Young and Kate Davies write that this landscape is

“…linked to each of us by invisible threads of commerce, science, politics and power.”

This article describes three processes.

  1. Material resources,
  2. Human labor,
  3. Data

Much of this article is written with vivid illustrations, so in all fairness you will not really get the full extent of the experience writing.

One example is their mapping of the elements involved.

Considering this it is important to think about the relationships that carry these materials into production lines then products and later handheld devices we carry with us. The cloud is in the mine, and it is extractive, although this gets clouded in the process.

“…the ethereal metaphor of ‘the cloud’ for offsite data management and processing is in complete contradiction with the physical realities of the extraction of minerals from the Earth’s crust and dispossession of human populations that sustain its existence.” (Crawford & Joler, 2018)

The authors refer to Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Nielson that use the term ‘extractivism’ to name the relationship between different forms of extractive operations.

Labour is central to this relationship. Labour moving from one location to the other is not entirely new. In fact people were transported around through various incentives long before, and very much treated like a commodity in and of themselves convinced to make do with certain location for various reasons linked to labour (Wolf, 1982).

Why lithium, it could as well be bananas.

“In political science, the term banana republic describes a politically unstable country with an economy dependent upon the exportation of a limited-resource product, such as bananas or minerals.” Wikipedia

As such these limited resources within electronics should maybe not surprise us as much as we think they do. These resources can make up so much of an economy that the state becomes dependant on the companies that operates within these areas to a large extent, but back to the article…

One interesting point it makes by extension is that the medium is not the message mentioning Jussi Parikka:

“In his book A Geology of Media, Jussi Parikka suggests that we try to think of media not from Marshall McLuhan’s point of view — in which media are extensions of human senses — but rather as an extension of Earth. Parikka views media in the context of a geological process, from the creation and the transformation processes, to the movement of natural elements from which media are built.”

They talk of deep time and depletion of resources.

“Each object in the extended network of an AI system, from network routers to batteries to microphones, is built using elements that required billions of years to be produced.”

These elements are then assembled into products meant to be used for only a few years.

There is a whole international infrastructure that is built up and maintained.

They draw up a comparative framework of production.

It becomes integrated enmeshed.

“…the attempt to capture the full supply chain is a truly gargantuan task: revealing all the complexity of the 21st century global production of technology products.”

One example they make is from Apple:

“Supply chains are often layered on top of one another, in a sprawling network. Apple’s supplier program reveals there are tens of thousands of individual components embedded in their devices, which are in turn supplied by hundreds of different compa- nies. In order for each of those components to arrive on the final assembly line where it will be assembled by workers in Foxconn facilities, different components need to be physically transferred from more than 750 supplier sites across 30 different countries.”

This is what they describe as the fractal.

In doing so they mention as well the trade routes and shipping.

They proceed to look at the shipping to the human aspect.

I hope this was a teaser interesting enough for you to want to check out their article in full.

If you thought this was an article revisiting and building upon the original article perhaps I will get the chance to do so at one point, however not in a day.


Crawford, K., & Joler, V. (2018). Anatomy of an AI System. Retrieved 6th of April, 18, 2020. Accessed online:

Wolf, Eric R.: Tre kapitler: “Introduction”, “The new laborers” og “Afterword”, i Wolf: Europe and the People without History, 2010 (1982). Berkeley/Los Angeles/ London: California University Press. Sidene 3–23, 354–383 og 385–391

This is #500daysofAI and you are reading article 308. I am writing one new article about or related to artificial intelligence every day for 500 days.

Written by

AI Policy and Ethics at Student at University of Copenhagen MSc in Social Data Science. All views are my own.

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