An MIT Technology Review series investigates how AI is enriching a powerful few by dispossessing communities that have been dispossessed before.
Karen Hao in the MIT Technology Review: My husband and I love to eat and to learn about history. So shortly after we married, we chose to honeymoon along the southern coast of Spain. The region, historically ruled by Greeks, Romans, Muslims, and Christians in turn, is famed for its stunning architecture and rich fusion of cuisines. Little did I know how much this personal trip would intersect with my reporting.
Over the last few years, an increasing number of scholars have argued that the impact of AI is repeating the patterns of colonial history. European colonialism, they say, was characterized by the violent capture of land, extraction of resources, and exploitation of people—for example, through slavery—for the economic enrichment of the conquering country. While it would diminish the depth of past traumas to say the AI industry is repeating this violence today, it is now using other, more insidious means to enrich the wealthy and powerful at the great expense of the poor.
I had already begun to investigate these claims when my husband and I began to journey through Seville, Córdoba, Granada, and Barcelona. As I simultaneously read The Costs of Connection, one of the foundational texts that first proposed a “data colonialism,” I realized that these cities were the birthplaces of European colonialism—cities through which Christopher Columbus traveled as he voyaged back and forth to the Americas, and through which the Spanish crown transformed the world order.
In Barcelona especially, physical remnants of this past abound. The city is known for its Catalan modernism, an iconic aesthetic popularized by Antoni Gaudí, the mastermind behind the Sagrada Familia. The architectural movement was born in part from the investments of wealthy Spanish families who amassed riches from their colonial businesses and funneled the money into lavish mansions.
One of the most famous, known as the Casa Lleó Morera, was built early in the 20th century with profits made from the sugar trade in Puerto Rico. While tourists from around the world today visit the mansion for its beauty, Puerto Rico still suffers from food insecurity because for so long its fertile land produced cash crops for Spanish merchants instead of sustenance for the local people.
As we stood in front of the intricately carved façade, which features flora, mythical creatures, and four women holding the four greatest inventions of the time (a lightbulb, a telephone, a gramophone, and a camera), I could see the parallels between this embodiment of colonial extraction and global AI development.