Analysis & Opinions - Jacobin

How the “Frontier” Became the Slogan of Uncontrolled AI

| Feb. 27, 2024

AI has been billed as a new frontier: an expanse whose exploration will drive the next era of wealth and human flourishing. Yet, time and again, its big-tech owners have used the frontiersman billing to declare themselves accountable to no one and no law.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has been billed as the next frontier of humanity: the newly available expanse whose exploration will drive the next era of growth, wealth, and human flourishing. It’s a scary metaphor. Throughout American history, the drive for expansion and the very concept of terrain up for grabs — land grabs, gold rushes, new frontiers — have provided a permission structure for imperialism and exploitation. This could easily hold true for AI.

This isn’t the first time the concept of a frontier has been used as a metaphor for AI, or technology in general. As early as 2018, the powerful foundation models powering cutting-edge applications like chatbots have been called “frontier AI.” In previous decades, the internet itself was considered an electronic frontier. Early cyberspace pioneer John Perry Barlow wrote “Unlike previous frontiers, this one has no end.” When he and others founded the internet’s most important civil liberties organization, they called it the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

America’s experience with frontiers is fraught, to say the least. Expansion into the Western frontier and beyond has been a driving force in our country’s history and identity — and has led to some of the darkest chapters of our past. The tireless drive to conquer the frontier has directly motivated some of this nation’s most extreme episodes of racism, imperialism, violence, and exploitation.

That history has something to teach us about the material consequences we can expect from the promotion of AI today. The race to build the next great AI app is not the same as the California gold rush. But the potential that outsize profits will warp our priorities, values, and morals is, unfortunately, analogous.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Sanders, Nathan and Bruce Schneier.“How the “Frontier” Became the Slogan of Uncontrolled AI.” Jacobin, February 27, 2024.

The Authors

Nathan Sanders