Artificial intelligence without borders

The US border-industrial complex has joined the AI game.

Last year, the United States Department of Homeland Security advertised the impending “deployment” on the US-Mexico border of “robot dogs”. According to a celebratory feature article published on the department’s website, the goal of the programme was to “force-multiply” the presence of US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) as well as to “reduce human exposure to life-threatening hazards”.

In case there was any doubt as to which human lives were of concern, the article specified: “The American Southwest is a region that blends a harsh landscape, temperature extremes and various other non-environmental threats that can create dangerous obstacles for those who patrol the border.”

There is no denying that the US-Mexico border is an inhospitable place; just ask the countless refuge seekers who have died trying to navigate it, thanks in large part to ongoing US efforts to effectively criminalise the very right to asylum.

And the terrain is becoming ever more hostile with the mad dash to run the entire world on artificial intelligence, border “security” operations to boot. The proliferation of AI-reliant surveillance technology has increasingly forced undocumented people into ever more dangerous territory, where “non-environmental threats” will apparently now also include canine robots.

Back in 2020, Elbit Systems of America – the US subsidiary of Elbit Systems of Israel, another country that delights in maintaining a deadly border regime – was already flaunting its AI-based “new solution” for CBP, which would work to identify “if there is an item of interest such as a human or vehicle approaching the border wall”.

To be sure, there are few things so dehumanising as the reduction to “items of interest” of people who have often risked their lives over thousands of kilometres in order to approach said border wall.

In 2022, CBP established an AI Center of Innovation. Then in May 2023, the government agency announced that it had “embraced the integration” of AI to “directly support fulfilling its mission across the enterprise”.

US Customs and Border Protection, mind you, operates in no fewer than 48 countries.

So much for other people’s borders.

The Joe Biden administration, of course, is fully enamoured of the whole virtual wall concept, along with the idea that it is somehow so much more civilised than the physical monstrosity envisioned by ex-president Donald Trump.Granted, having asylum seekers perish silently in the desert is far less sensational than subjecting them to Trump’s proposed alligator-filled moats and flesh-piercing spikes.

But war is war, whether it’s waged via “smart” technologies or not.

And as we know from America’s many military undertakings, the business of killing enjoys strong bipartisan appeal.

Now, incidentally, one of the main players in the AI border game is Anduril Industries, a defence company backed by right-wing billionaire zealot Peter Thiel, whose endorsement of Trumpian anti-migrant fantasies underscores the highly lucrative potential of xenophobia.

As of 2022, Anduril had already netted a hefty CBP contract to deploy 189 autonomous surveillance towers on the southwestern US border – a veritable field day for AI enthusiasts.

And at this year’s annual dystopian spectacle known as the Border Security Expo – held in El Paso, Texas – Anduril’s surveillance technology stole the show alongside robo-dogs and other, shall we say, “items of interest” that can be safely filed under the “creepy as hell” category.

Todd Miller, co-founder of The Border Chronicle and a veteran observer of the multibillion-dollar border-industrial complex, attended the expo in May and remarked in a subsequent email to me that artificial intelligence has “gone into hyper-drive on the border enforcement front”.

Noting that “just about everything vendors are peddling” nowadays contains an AI component, Miller lamented that it is now “full steam ahead into a new era, with very little pushback at all”.

Obviously, the US-Mexico border is already sufficiently inhuman without the addition of surveillance towers, facial recognition software, and other AI-powered exploits. When a young Venezuelan friend of mine named Johan crossed from the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez into El Paso in April, he was detained for six days in Texas by US immigration personnel who treated him and his companions “like dogs”, he later told me.

Johan was permitted a single shower during his nearly weeklong detention, after which he was flown, cuffed at the hands and feet, to the state of Arizona and expelled back into Mexico – a popular US practice that intentionally jeopardises the lives and wellbeing of asylum seekers in the name of “deterrence”.

All of this was done by real live humans with an ostensible capacity for compassion – which certainly makes you worry about what will happen when the machines are in charge.

Meanwhile, refuge seekers are hardly the only victims of the AI bonanza and border militarisation in general. Recall that, in 2020, CBP deployed a Predator drone over the city of Minneapolis in response to protests over the murder by police of unarmed 46-year-old Black man George Floyd.

Borders, it seems, are wherever the US says they are.

And as we plunge headlong into an era governed by technology that knows no physical or ethical boundaries, it’s dangerous ground indeed.