Enchanted Determinism: Power without Responsibility in Artificial Intelligence

  • Alexander Campolo University of Chicago
  • Kate Crawford New York University, Microsoft Research
Keywords: artificial intelligence, deep learning, enchantment, Max Weber, magic, classification


Deep learning techniques are growing in popularity within the field of artificial intelligence (AI). These approaches identify patterns in large scale datasets, and make classifications and predictions, which have been celebrated as more accurate than those of humans. But for a number of reasons, including nonlinear path from inputs to outputs, there is a dearth of theory that can explain why deep learning techniques work so well at pattern detection and prediction. Claims about “superhuman” accuracy and insight, paired with the inability to fully explain how these results are produced, form a discourse about AI that we call enchanted determinism. To analyze enchanted determinism, we situate it within a broader epistemological diagnosis of modernity: Max Weber’s theory of disenchantment. Deep learning occupies an ambiguous position in this framework. On one hand, it represents a complex form of technological calculation and prediction, phenomena Weber associated with disenchantment. On the other hand, both deep learning experts and observers deploy enchanted, magical discourses to describe these systems’ uninterpretable mechanisms and counter-intuitive behavior. The combination of predictive accuracy and mysterious or unexplainable properties results in myth-making about deep learning’s transcendent, superhuman capacities, especially when it is applied in social settings. We analyze how discourses of magical deep learning produce techno-optimism, drawing on case studies from game-playing, adversarial examples, and attempts to infer sexual orientation from facial images. Enchantment shields the creators of these systems from accountability while its deterministic, calculative power intensifies social processes of classification and control.

Author Biographies

Alexander Campolo, University of Chicago

Alexander Campolo was a research assistant at the AI Now Institute where he worked on a range of critical and epistemological topics in AI. He is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge at the University of Chicago, where he continues to work at the intersection of data, knowledge, and politics.

Kate Crawford, New York University, Microsoft Research

Kate Crawford is a Distinguished Research Professor at New York University, where she co-founded the AI Now Institute. Her work over the last decade has centered on the social and political implications of large-scale data and machine learning. She is also a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, and the inaugural Visiting Chair in AI and Justice at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris.


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08 Jan 2020
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