Ethan Zuckerman

AI and the new Eternal Return

Published Originally by The Public Interest Technologist. It is time for a "Minimum Standard of Care for AI" that can regulate an acceptable minimal conduct for companies and individuals that deploy AI outside the regulatory borders of their respective countries.

By Claudia Dobles Camargo, Visiting Scholar, MIT LCAU 

Sins of the Past

The United Fruit Company was formed in 1899, from the merger between Boston Fruit Company with a Costa Rican railway firm. By the mid-20th century, the company, known as “The Octopus,” not only dominated the global fruit market, but controlled vast tracts of land throughout Central America and the Caribbean, exerting significant political and economic influence in the region through labor exploitation and resource extraction.

Its ruthless style gave rise to the term “Banana Republic,” used for the countries impacted by its influence. The United Fruit Company exemplifies the asymmetries in power between the Global North and South, as well as the exploitation of the most vulnerable for profit.  

We might think societies would have learned from these past experiences, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Nietzsche called this condition the Eternal Return, the idea that humans are condemned to infinite repetition.

New Technology, Same Old Practices

Since January of this year, the Argentine government has scrutinized Worldcoin, a San Francisco-based company co-founded by Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, for its biometric data collection efforts. These involve face and iris scans conducted across various regions.

The Argentinian Agency for Access to Public Information (AAIP) has demanded clarity from the company regarding its operations, the types of data processed and their intended uses. Concern arose after news broke that over 100,000 individuals provided their biometric data in exchange for cryptocurrency valued at around $50 (USD).

This is not Worldcoin's first data collection endeavor. The company has also operated in Indonesia, Sudan, and Kenya for recruitment, data collection, and testing drives.

Worldcoin positions itself as an entity striving to forge the most extensive digital identity and financial network globally, promising ownership for all[1]  its users[CDC2] . Its goal, as stated on its website is to ensure universal access to the global economy, transcending national borders and socioeconomic backgrounds, thereby granting every individual the opportunity to prosper in the current AI era.

To that end, the company has created a digital identity based on biometric traits (World ID) that is linked to a financial network using the cryptocurrency Worldcoin token (WLD) operated through an app known as World App. To access this network, one must prove that they are a human through a "proof of personhood," which is obtained through iris scans.

It is not clear how Worldcoin ensures the biometric information they collect is secure, let alone protected from more nefarious purposes. Worldcoin says the information is securely encrypted in transit and at rest through "zero-knowledge proofs" (ZKP), a cryptographic mechanism.

In April 2022, Eileen Guo and Adi Renaldi published in the MIT Technology Review the article  "Deception, Exploited Workers, and Cash Handouts: How Worldcoin Recruited Its First Half a Million Test Users," which critiques Worldcoin's opaque data collection methods and revealed significant discrepancies between the privacy assurances Worldcoin offered and the actual experiences of the users.

They found that the company’s agents engaged in misleading advertising tactics, harvested more information than they admitted to, and did not ensure that they had informed consent from individuals using the technology. 

The absence of national regulations, coupled with the economic needs of vulnerable people, perpetuates these controversial practices. Conversely, Worldcoin accepts that their tokens remain unavailable for people or companies within the US, probably because other societal or regulatory rules forbid this kind of activity 

Proposing A Minimum Standard of (AI) Care

It is time for a "Minimum Standard of Care for AI" that can regulate an acceptable minimal conduct for companies and individuals that deploy AI outside the regulatory borders of their respective countries. This level of care should be based on Human Rights law and the dignity of human life, just as has been in the field of health care; companies and individuals must take responsibility for the harm they cause to others.

In the end, all human beings—and the data they represent—are equally valuable, right?

Agency in the Global South, Making Data Governance a Public Concern

The developing world certainly has a responsibility and the agency required to find pathways to bring us into the global context in a fair the effective way.

Governments in the developing world should channel efforts into fostering digital innovation and regulatory ecosystems, focusing on two key areas: the creation of critical infrastructure for digitalization and the development of capabilities and human talent to meet the needs of this digital shift.

There is a pressing need for these governments to create and engage in collaborative platforms and collective endeavors to bolster digital development within their regions. This should align with regional priorities, and foster a shared interest in AI governance. A notable example is the African Union’s (AU) collaborative efforts on digitalization, which include both Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI) and capacity building throughout the continent.

The establishment of the first Latin American Artificial Intelligence Index (ILIA) developed under the leadership of Chile through the National AI Center of Chile (CENIA), with the support of the Interamerican Development Bank (IDB), the Development Bank of Latin America (CAF), the Organization of American States (OAS), and the technical assistance of UNESCO and Stanford HAI (had a total of 12 countries indexed) offers a blueprint for regional integration. ILIA provides a comprehensive overview of Latin America’s AI readiness.

While there is a need to expand and deepen this initiative into the Caribbean, ILIA as an organization serves as a foundation for national and regional collaboration, contributing significant experience with global AI dialogues.

 The Next Frontier and Building Public Trust

For artificial intelligence (AI) to be a tool worthy of public trust, both companies and the sectors that employ these technologies must address the ethical issues arising from ongoing power imbalances between the Global North and Global South that inform data collection practices and shape individual rights.

Ethical considerations for AI use across borders must extend beyond creating algorithms that are fair, transparent, robust, and explainable to general publics. These considerations should be integral to how AI is developed and deployed from the start.

The rise of AI and the case of Worldcoin prompts us to rethink technology's societal impact.  A truly global AI viewpoint necessitates the inclusion of a greater diversity of voices at the table. Currently, the Global South is consistently underrepresented in AI-related forums.

Countries and organizations that have traditionally led AI discourse must ensure the inclusion of the Global South in discussions, roundtables, and working groups, as well as on advisory bodies like the OECD and the United Nations, where only 7 out of 37 members of the UN AI Advisory Body are from or represent the Global South. As technologies rapidly change, the need for diverse representation is urgent.

If we continue to repeat historical errors, the repercussions could be dire. The cycle of inequality and injustice can only be broken with will, regulation, and a genuine effort to ensure inclusion.

Claudia Dobles Camargo is an experienced architect, urbanist, and presidential advisor with over 15 years of expertise in urban mobility, social housing, community engagement, climate change, and fair transition. 

She served as the first lady of Costa Rica from 2018 to 2022, co-leading the Costa Rican National Decarbonization Plan alongside the president, where she led high-impact resilience and adaptation projects in Costa Rica such as the 82km “Electric Passenger Train” with support from CABEI and the Green Climate Fund as well as the “Water Supply Project for the Tempisque Basin” the most important adaptation project in Costa Rica. 

Claudia's achievements include advocating for expanding the roles of the first lady or first gentleman in Costa Rica and promoting gender equality and women's empowerment. Before her role as First Lady, she worked as a regional design leader for a multinational firm, contributing to large-scale projects across Latin America & the Caribbean, and the United States. 

Claudia holds a degree in Architecture from the University of Costa Rica and has engaged in sustainability programs at Kanto Gakuin University in Japan. She was a Loeb Fellow at Harvard Graduate School of Design and currently focuses on research at the MIT Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism on the intersection of climate change and AI.

Claudia Dobles Camargo