The Exploited Labor Behind Artificial Intelligence

Essay by Adrienne Williams, Milagros Miceli, and Timnit Gebru: “The public’s understanding of artificial intelligence (AI) is largely shaped by pop culture — by blockbuster movies like “The Terminator” and their doomsday scenarios of machines going rogue and destroying humanity. This kind of AI narrative is also what grabs the attention of news outlets: a Google engineer claiming that its chatbot was sentient was among the most discussed AI-related news in recent months, even reaching Stephen Colbert’s millions of viewers. But the idea of superintelligent machines with their own agency and decision-making power is not only far from reality — it distracts us from the real risks to human lives surrounding the development and deployment of AI systems. While the public is distracted by the specter of nonexistent sentient machines, an army of precarized workers stands behind the supposed accomplishments of artificial intelligence systems today.

Many of these systems are developed by multinational corporations located in Silicon Valley, which have been consolidating power at a scale that, journalist Gideon Lewis-Kraus notes, is likely unprecedented in human history. They are striving to create autonomous systems that can one day perform all of the tasks that people can do and more, without the required salaries, benefits or other costs associated with employing humans. While this corporate executives’ utopia is far from reality, the march to attempt its realization has created a global underclass, performing what anthropologist Mary L. Gray and computational social scientist Siddharth Suri call ghost work: the downplayed human labor driving “AI”.

Tech companies that have branded themselves “AI first” depend on heavily surveilled gig workers like data labelers, delivery drivers and content moderators. Startups are even hiring people to impersonate AI systems like chatbots, due to the pressure by venture capitalists to incorporate so-called AI into their products. In fact, London-based venture capital firm MMC Ventures surveyed 2,830 AI startups in the EU and found that 40% of them didn’t use AI in a meaningful way…(More)”.