‘Inside the AI Factory: The Humans That Make Tech Seem Human’

Josh Dzieza, in a splendid investigative report co-published by The Verge and New York Magazine:

For Joe’s students, it was work stripped of all its normal trappings: a schedule, colleagues, knowledge of what they were working on or whom they were working for. In fact, they rarely called it work at all — just “tasking.” They were taskers.

The anthropologist David Graeber defines “bullshit jobs” as employment without meaning or purpose, work that should be automated but for reasons of bureaucracy or status or inertia is not. These AI jobs are their bizarro twin: work that people want to automate, and often think is already automated, yet still requires a human stand-in. The jobs have a purpose; it’s just that workers often have no idea what it is. [...]

This tangled supply chain is deliberately hard to map. According to people in the industry, the companies buying the data demand strict confidentiality. (This is the reason Scale cited to explain why Remotasks has a different name.) Annotation reveals too much about the systems being developed, and the huge number of workers required makes leaks difficult to prevent. Annotators are warned repeatedly not to tell anyone about their jobs, not even their friends and co-workers, but corporate aliases, project code names, and, crucially, the extreme division of labor ensure they don’t have enough information about them to talk even if they wanted to. (Most workers requested pseudonyms for fear of being booted from the platforms.) Consequently, there are no granular estimates of the number of people who work in annotation, but it is a lot, and it is growing. A recent Google Research paper gave an order-of-magnitude figure of “millions” with the potential to become “billions.”

Evocative artwork by Richard Parry accompanying the piece at The Verge, too.

Monday, 26 June 2023