Challenging Logistical AI

Krystian Woznicki, a critic and the co-founder of Berliner Gazette, questions The Politics of Artificial Artificial Intelligence: « There is a lot about AI in general and there is also a lot about logistics in general, but there is hardly any literature about the intersection that I am proposing to call Logistical AI. So, out of urgent necessity, we need to be sort of inventing a critical discourse on Logistical AI. »

Politicizing the rise of Artificial Intelligence while autocrats are gaining momentum, the “Ambient Revolts” conference – on its third and closing day – moved onto new ground.

Let us call this ground: “Logistical AI”. It is new ground insofar as it has hardly been covered by academic or journalistic knowledge production. Of course, there is a lot about AI in general and there is also a lot about logistics in general, but there is hardly any literature about the intersection that I am proposing to call Logistical AI. So, out of urgent necessity, we need to be sort of inventing a critical discourse on Logistical AI. In order to do this I will first sketch the emergence of Logistical AI as a field of politics, then I will introduce the seemingly unrelated work of Sandi Hilal and Evelina Gambino within this emerging field. Finally, I will reflect on the struggle within and against Logistical AI as a politics of Artificial Artificial Intelligence, raising critical issues of agency and labor.

I. So far, academic and journalistic reflection has been content with dealing only with the individual dots of this newly emerging complex of Logistical AI without yet connecting them. The dots we are looking at are Computational Logistics / cargo-mobility systems / Supply Chain Management / Industry 4.0 / RFID / Internet of Things. Just to name a few. These dots should be thought together if we wish to explore the hidden power of Logistical AI. And the question is how to make a contribution to initiating this process. Before we try to answer that question, let me first note something that puzzles me: I find the fact that Logistical AI seems to be a blind spot pretty astonishing. After all, it is quite obvious that this is happening. Just take two things into consideration that are basically taking place in plain sight.

Firstly, consider what the current stage of capitalism is about. As many have very convincingly argued, production as we have known it is ceasing to be of importance andcirculation is becoming the only game in town. Logistics is the hidden force behind this tendency. Artificial Intelligence in turn promises to be the perfect technology for this stage of “frictionless” and “seamless” capitalism focused on circulation, as also media theorist Clemens Apprich suggests. Here, computer programs are supposed to generate their own rules and engender their own programs as well as outcomes – seemingly keeping things in “continuous motion”, ostensibly “creating something out of nothing”.

Secondly, consider what the big players of the “Partnership on AI” are up to. I mean IT giants like Amazon, Google, Facebook, etc. They are investing tremendous amounts of resources in Artificial Intelligence. And they are doing this not only in order to be able to develop new user applications. It is pretty obvious that these are rather by-products and thattheir primary goal is to be able to manage their transnational corporate empires more efficiently. This, of course, is a matter of logistics. Why? Look, for instance, at the publicly staged step the IT giants are taking to become the architects of the so-called Smart City. This step entails the challenge of managing the circulation of goods, people, data and capital in logistically intelligent ways.

These are just two examples that show that Logistical AI is happening. What is important for our discussion is that, just like the fantasy of frictionless circulation, theincreasingly privatized form of AI-driven city governmentality is meant tomagically neutralize pressing social and economic frictions along the way. For instance, as Francesca Bria’s and Evgeny Morozov’s work on the politics of the Smart City suggests, smartness – as an indicator of frictionless circulationis gradually overwriting politics. Thus, if we wish to challenge Logistical AI we need to reintroduce the question of politics. And I believe, that we need to go about this less through a totalizing approach but rather from specific perspectives – sideways, in a way.

Some important impulses for the endeavor to politicizeLogistical AI come from political geography.For instance from Louise Amoore, who works on (“self-learning”) algorithms in the context of mobility and capital circulation, and from Deborah Cowen, whose work brings the securitization of transnational supply chains into view. Both of their work points to a major but often neglected paradox in the governmental ambition to optimize the circulation of capital. As this ambition entails a securitization of supply chains, e.g. the transformation of ports into security zones, the governmental claim is that all of this is being done in the name of “national security”. But doesn't the securitization of circulation threaten “national security” and vice versa? In other words: If you render incessant circulation securable – enabling a constant and frictionless passing of nation-state borders –, then how can you at the same time foster “national security” which traditionally hinges upon containment? Isn't this an insurmountable paradox? Deborah Cowen shows in her book “The Deadly Lives of Logistics” that both circulation and security are actually possible at once, because within logistical landscapes the logics of circulation and security are being recalibrated to this very end. As Cowen writes: “The stretching of logistics systems across [national] borders into ‘pipelines of trade’ means that supply chain security recasts not only the object of [national] security but its logics and spatial forms as well.”

That AI-driven governmentality reconciles circulation and security is also apparent with regard to the deployment of AI at state borders. As Louise Amoore notes in her book The Politics of Possibility”: “in order to learn, to change daily and evolve [algorithms] require precisely the circulations and mobilities that pass through”. This observation, as she also makes clear in an interview I have conducted with her, is part of Amoore’s larger Foucault-indebted argument about how governmentality is less concerned with prohibiting movement than with facilitating movement in profitable ways. The role of “self-learning” algorithms seems to be significant in this context, since – like capitalism – they are produced by and productive of movement. Thus the very securability of movement and circulation in general becomes the condition for profitability within an emerging logistical infrastructure space that architect and urbanist Keller Easterling callsExtrastatecraft. The thirst for traffic is the common denominator of “self-learning” algorithms and circulation-based capitalism, as well as of logistics and security.

In view of this, it is becoming crucial to investigate the connection between seemingly unrelated things such as between drone wars on the one hand – as an extreme example of AI-driven security – and refugee escape routes on the other. After all, and this is what a workshop at the “Tacit Futures” conference was able to explore, they both rely on the very same (public-private) infrastructure that is increasingly becoming a logistical matter of data modeling and computer programming. This said, it is becoming ever more important to expand the emerging field of Logistical AI in migration research. There are traces of this in the work of the scholars who jointly authored the study “Logistische Grenzlandschaften(published in English in a special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly). Here, Manuela Bojadzijev, Sandro Mezzadra and their colleagues are providing an analysis of the ongoing logistification of migration management. What we are facing here is an emergent governmental strategy – or should we instead call it a fantasy? Yet, whatever it is, the logistification of migration management wants mobility to become “a programmer’s game”, as Brett Neilson notes. And, as a result, it wants migrant labor to arrive at its desired destination as efficiently as Amazon items do. Clearly, the logistification of migration management is a dangerous tendency that should not go unnoticed or unprotested.


II. Against this background, it is fruitful to engage with Evelina Gambino’s and Sandi Hilal’s work within seemingly unrelated logistical landscapes. On the one hand, the new silk road “passing through” the South Caucasian Republic of Georgia. On the other hand, refugee camps in the occupied territories formerly known as Palestine and echoes of this experience in Europe– thereby making visible a counter-narrative to the export path of the logistification of migration management from South to North.

The refugee camps in the occupied territories formerly known as Palestine are circumscribed by what Israel cultivated in the last two decades as the “most extreme examples of privatized security in the world”, as economic theorist Shir Hever puts it. Moreover, Israel, as a neo-colonial state, has nurtured an IT sector that has developed many of the post-9/11 security technologies. Thus, on the one hand, Israel’s economy as the “most tech-dependent in the world” (Business Week) is supplying the international market with security technology. On the other, Israel’s IT sector is a catalyzer and accelerator for transforming the region into an experimental laboratory for Logistical AI as a marriage between circulation and security. This unsettling marriage “inspires” political and economic actors around the world. What Israel pioneered in the 1990s as a high-tech marriage between security and circulation-based capitalism, many embraced in the post-9/11 era.

The post-9/11 new normal likely has distracted many observers from the fact that Israel’s economic model is undermining the peace process in the region, as Naomi Klein convincingly argues. So, instead of committing to the peace process, Israel manages the region as a high-tech security landscape where all natural and built features serve the ends of militarized movement control, as architect Eyal Weizman also suggests in his book “Hollow Land”. We are talking about a neo-colonial battlefield that is not temporary but permanent, engendering over time spaces of inhabitation. As a matter of fact, this permanent battlefield and the spaces of inhabitation that are superimposed on top of it – eventually both need to establish inter-related supply chains in order to sustain themselves as such, so that the logistics of war and the logistics of everyday life are overlapping each other, becoming interdependent and indistinguishable. This logistical nightmare is echoed in other logistical nightmares on this planet. This is why we need to study it closely.

Here, the features of mobility security are an assemblage of structures that are organizing the space and time of the region. This is done in a manner so violent and so alien that it is hard to imagine that human designers have been responsible for it. It is easier to imagine an Artificial Intelligence at work: cold, detached, far from human suffering and politics. Just like black-boxed self-learning and self-reproducing AI technologies seem to be. Yet, even if this image of a non-human actor may help to picture the horror, it is important to remember that all AI is largely human and political by design. If the regime of movement control is giving itself a distinctly non-human face – then this is to suggest that an unaccountable power is responsible for the violent design. This clearly depoliticizes the situation. Just as refugees, whose movement is meant to be as constricted as possible, are denied their status and potential as political subjects. Yet, Sandi Hilal's work as an architect, researcher and initiator of many seminal projects on decolonization shows the contrary: refugees are the most important political actor in the region. After all, it is their existence, their doings and their organizing that destabilize the neo-colonial security matrix by consistently calling the occupation and its regime of movement control into question.

As one of the refugees from the camps in which Sandi Hilal has been active, says, and I am paraphrasing from her book Architecture After Revolution”: the better organized our camp becomes, the more effective our struggle for decolonization. Better organized camps as a product ofalternative logistics of refugeessuggest a grassroots counter-politics that is capable of challenging Israel’s highly securitized logistical landscape. This said, the political potential of refugees comes into view anew in the face of other logistical landscapes inspired by Israel. For instance, the designated “reserve army” of “flexible labor” has become the “raw material” of the logistification of migration management that has been introduced in Europe after the Summer of Migration in 2015, when millions of asylum seekers entered EU territory. If this entails a renewed recalibration of the relationship between (nation-state) security and circulation-based capitalism, then thisprocess – overshadowed by rising right-wing populism – last but least puts the political potential of refugees up for a seminal test.

Sandi Hilal talking at the “Ambient Revolts” conference, Nov. 10, 2018. © Norman Posselt / cc by nc Sandi Hilal talking at the “Ambient Revolts” conference, Nov. 10, 2018. © Norman Posselt / cc by nc

Let us turn now to the other site of our reflection: the South Caucasian Republic of Georgia. This country is at the center of ambitious infrastructural investments aimed at transforming the country into a logistics hub for the Chinese-led New Silk Road project. These developments are reshaping Georgian territory and its economy. There are reasons to consider this process a logistics revolution. And some aspects of this logistics revolution are of great relevance to the discussion of Logistical AI. To begin with, geopolitics has defined the territorial competition as a “struggle for the heartland”; now, as Evelina Gambino’s work suggests, the logistical power of the New Silk Road introduces a new heartland. And this new heartland is, I am quoting from Gambino’s work, “a deterritorialized cyborg, resulting from the agglomeration of infrastructure, territory, manpower, and resources.” And it is this “deterritorialized cyborg” that we should explore: How does its source code look? How does its technological design work? What is its promise of seamless circulation all about? And how does it integrate security designs? Moreover, despite the advancement of increasingly AI-driven automation, the logistics sector still relies on great amounts of labor power. This in fact also holds true for AI in general, which is why the term Artificial Artificial Intelligence has been coined. It suggests that AI has to hide its dependence on human labor in order to appear magically autonomous. Now if the cost of this labor as well as its bargaining capacity are the chief obstacles to seamless circulation – then what possibilities do we face today for the disruption of seemingly fully-automated supply chains and logistics networks?

Prior to her work on logistics in Georgia, Evelina Gambino has taken part in the creation of a network of precarious workers, migrants, researchers, grassroots unions and activists. One of the imperatives of this unique network is that one's subjectivity does not exclude the other. As part of this network she has been realizing bottom-up initiatives in partly highly secluded migrant laborer settlements across Italy, including co-research and collaborative educational projects that are also documented in her article “The Gran Ghettò: Migrant Labor and Militant Research in Southern Italy” published in “The Borders of ‘Europe’: Autonomy of Migration, Tactics of Bordering” edited by migration researcher Nicholas De Genova. What Gambino calls in this article “collective militant research” is an attempt to develop a research practice from within an emerging struggle, seeking to build an understanding of research as integral to the composition of a class consciousness, rather than outside or above it. The possibilities opened up by this attempt, as well as its limits, are informing her current work on logistics.

Taking all of this into account, we can firmly grasp the common denominator between Sandi Hilal’s and Evelina Gambino's tremendously inspiring work: in their highly politicized investment to research, both of them show us that it is the dispossessed and the invisibilized actors of the increasingly AI-driven circulation management regime who are political subjects in their own right. Moreover, Hilal’s and Gambino’s work shows that these political subjects arise from within the tectonic violence of contemporary logistical landscapes as actors who coin new, seminal forms of agency by resisting submission to the power of Logistical AI.


III. Challenging Logistical AI, we need to think an undoing or undermining of the power of AI-driven logistics. Moreover, we need to think an alternative to logistics, perhaps even in the form of an alternative art of logistics, including the collective organizing of alternative supply chains, etc. In other words: If logistical power has the capacity to engender spaces, politics, and subjects, as some suggest, then we are challenged to rethink what it means to organize within and against that form of power. Engaging with Evelina Gambino’s and Sandi Hilal’s work in conjunction, we are able to put up for debate various for the most part under-explored aspects of Artificial Intelligence in the context of logistics, aspects that stimulate the aforementioned thought processes.

For instance, we are challenged to grasp the political consequences of mobility policies that are driven by the logics of AI-driven goods circulation, the motto being: “let us apply what, for instance, Amazon has mastered in the field of goods to the domain of human movement”. Applying the logistical designs of goods circulation to the domain of human movement means applying Artificial Intelligence to the management of mobile labor. It is a dangerous fantasy. And it is more than that, as this impertinent idea is being practically implemented on various levels of governmentality. We can go even a step further when reading Evelina Gambino’s and Sandi Hilal’s work in conjunction. After all, this reading can bring to light how Logistical AI not simply replaces human labor, but rather re-frames and re-narrates what labor is supposed to be. In the course of this, Logistical AI engenders new laboring bodies. Retrieved from the “surplus population”, these bodies are coded as “machine spares” or “hardware periphery”. In other words, humans are not replaced by AI but re-purposed into replaceable modules of AI – and thereby subordinated to its post-human logics.

At this juncture two politics of Artificial Artificial Intelligence come to the fore. On the one hand, the politics of labor that is supposed to render frictionless the logistical infrastructure as to enable seamless circulation of not only goods but also of laboring bodies. On the other, the politics of labor that – channeled through the logistical infrastructure – is supposed to arrive just-in-time and of labor that profiled by means of algorithmic calculation – is supposed to fit in seamlessly in the respective work place. Reading Gambino’s research as an intervention into the former and Hilal’s research as an intervention into the latter, both more or less openly gesture towards a politics of AAI that is about the hidden labor of workers who are becoming ever more invisibilized by AI-driven governmentality. And the reason why their research actually amounts to an intervention into the assemblages of logistical power is because it opens up spaces for thinking about how to struggle within and against this form of power. The question (of how to organize and struggle within and against logistical power) comes to the fore as a question of those who are among the most precarious actors in the AI-driven circulation regime: invisibilized actors such as refugees, migrant workers, day laborers, etc. In other words, this is a question whether and how the inivisibilized are not just instrumentalized by but actually also subverting this rising form of infrastructural power, bringing to the fore the politics of Artificial Artificial Intelligence – that is: the human labor that is invisibilized within increasingly AI-driven logistics.

This in turn triggers a number of other questions. For instance, if there is something like an autonomy of migration (that counters the fantasy of AI-driven movement control) then what do the invisibilized as political subjects to come allow us to explore and realize about this autonomy in the context of Logistical AI? If logistical power is all about organizing the movement of things as seamless and virtually endless circulation – then what does it mean to challenge that power by making visible the systematically invisibilized labor of the invisibilized? What, if anything at all, becomes visible in acts of refusal and disruption, as suggested by Gambino? Or in acts of pausing, resting and hosting, as suggested by Hilal? And why and how is it actually possible to reclaim political agency along the way?

It will become ever more important to inquire, “how logistics routes provide new connections, and somewhat unexpected transnational possibilities for cementing existing alliances”, as Gambino suggests. Thus, we are also able to build on an idea that Deborah Cowen was talking about at the Berliner Gazette conference “Friendly Fire” as well as in an interview I conducted with her prior to the talk: “The emphasis on circulation in logistics systems gives a special power to the act of disruption [...] [such as] the blockade or the occupation [...] This is not only because of the immediate effect of disruption, but also because of the space of the convergence itself, and how alternative relations of care and provision – alternative logistics – anchored in relations of reciprocity and solidarity can emerge through acts of disruption.” Articulating and reflecting this vision hopefully will inspire new alliances to come. Last but not least, all of this will hopefully be heard as an urgent call for further inquiries of Logistical AI, especially by foregrounding the often neglected politics of Artificial Artificial Intelligence that, e.g., re-introduces issues of labor where labor is ostensibly no longer relevant.


This text is a modified and expanded version of an introduction given on November 10, 2018 to a panel with Evelina Gambino and Sandi Hilal at the Berliner Gazette conference “Ambient Revolts”. More info about the conference and its documentation here. Video-interviews that the Berliner Gazette team conducted with Sandi Hilal [here] and with Evelina Gambino [here].

Krystian Woznicki is a critic and the co-founder of Berliner Gazette. His recently published book “Fugitive Belonging” blends writing and photography. Other publications include “A Field Guide to the Snowden Files” (with Magdalena Taube), “After the Planes” (with Brian Massumi), “Wer hat Angst vor Gemeinschaft?” (with Jean-Luc Nancy) and “Abschalten. Paradiesproduktion, Massentourismus und Globalisierung”.

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