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The AI gig economy is coming for you

The artificial-intelligence industry runs on the invisible labor of humans working in isolated and often terrible conditions—and the model is spreading to more and more businesses.
May 31, 2019
An image of anthropologist Mary Gray who co-wrote the book Ghost Work.
An image of anthropologist Mary Gray who co-wrote the book Ghost Work.Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

On Wednesday, the Guardian published an article about the realities of producing Google Assistant. Behind the “magic” of its ability to interpret 26 languages is a huge team of linguists, working as subcontractors, who must tediously label the training data for it to work. They earn low wages and are routinely forced to work unpaid overtime. Their concerns over working conditions have been repeatedly dismissed.

It’s just one story among dozens that have begun to peel back the curtain on how the artificial-intelligence industry operates. Human workers don’t just label the data that makes AI work. Sometimes humans workers are the artificial intelligence. Behind Facebook’s content-moderating AI are thousands of content moderators; behind Amazon Alexa is a global team of transcribers; and behind Google Duplex are sometimes very human callers mimicking the AI that mimics humans. Artificial intelligence doesn’t run on magic pixie dust. It runs on invisible laborers who train algorithms relentlessly until they’ve automated their own jobs away.

In their new book Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass, anthropologist Mary Gray and computer scientist Siddharth Suri argue that you and I could be next.

I caught up with Gray this week to discuss why people turn to ghost work, how their invisibility leaves them more vulnerable to terrible working conditions, and how we can make this new form of work more sustainable.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

MIT Technology Review: How do you define ghost work?

Mary Gray: It’s any work that could be—at least in part—sourced, scheduled, managed, shipped, and built through an application programming interface, the internet, and maybe a sprinkle of artificial intelligence. It arguably becomes ghost work when the proposition is that there are no humans involved in that loop, that it’s just a matter of software working its magic.

The cover of the book Ghost Work
Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

So the definition really hinges on how the end product or service is marketed.

Yeah. The work, or the output, itself is not inherently bad or good. It is specifically the work conditions that make it bad or good. Providing a service like those we describe in the book, captioning a translation or cleaning training data for training algorithms—that work is often written off as mundane drudgery. Think of content moderation right now and how it’s sensationalized as something horrific and terrible to do. From the perspective of the workers, it’s a job. And it’s a job that actually takes quite a bit of creativity and insight and judgment. The problem is that the work conditions don’t recognize how important the person is to that process. It diminishes their work and really creates work conditions that are unsustainable.

Companies have a long history of exploiting the labor of less privileged communities. You bring up the example of the fashion industry in your book. Is there something particularly distinct about ghost work that creates even more cause for concern?

In some ways, ghost work is indeed a continuation of the mistreatment of many working people. To me, the dramatic shift is we’ve never quite had industries so completely sell contract labor as automation—not just to make it difficult for a consumer to see the supply chain as we can in textiles, in food, and in agriculture, but also to say that there’s really not a person working here at all. I get chills just thinking: if that is taken to every sector that effectively sells information services, that’s a lot of people and their participation in the economy erased. That also makes it so difficult for workers to organize and to claw back power.

This is really about the dismantlement of employment.

In the textile industry, what makes it somewhat possible to organize is that you have people located in the same building. It’s possible for them to see common cause and say, “This isn’t just happening to me.” With ghost work, we’ve never had a workforce so completely globally distributed. That creates such a different challenge for the workers, both to draw attention to the issue among consumers and to see that they’re not alone.

Because they don’t know about each other, they’re unable to demand good working conditions. And because society doesn’t know about them, there’s no accountability.

Exactly. And in many ways, this is what’s coming home to roost. Many industries have always relied on contingent workers. But now we’ve completely built an economy around relying on contingent workers. There is no more “I’m just filling in the holes here with contractors, and my full-time workers do most of the work.” That is radical. We should really take pause. So much of the mainstream of our economy is about having an office job, and that’s about to get eliminated. There isn’t a version of this in which you advance to full-time, more stable on-demand work. If we don’t catch it now, it all becomes ghost work. This is really about the dismantlement of employment.

Yeah, the thing that most surprised me about your book is how many people who are highly educated are doing ghost work. The fact that so many people with master’s degrees are turning to ghost work really indicates how far we’ve allowed this trend to grow.

The great paradox of on-demand information services is that they cannot be easily automated. Any work involving serving someone else’s needs requires quite a bit of intelligence and attentiveness, so a college education has become the new bar of universal education, and the people participating in the loop have become fundamentally necessary. But we clearly don’t know how to value that.

So what are the large-scale changes that you think need to happen in order for us not to all be swallowed by ghost work?

Being reliant on contract work essentially means we are reliant on people being available. So the number one intervention both workers and businesses need is to rebuild our social contract for employment around the value of availability. This would assume that all working-age adults have the potential to participate in our economy and are valuable precisely because they are willing to bring the distinctly human capacity to respond to people’s requests for help to projects.

Right now we spend a lot of energy trying to figure out how to bring people into full-time employment, particularly in the US, to secure benefits. We should let go of trying to secure benefits through a work site. Instead we should ask, “What are the benefits people need to be able to participate in this type of economy?” They need a few things: they need access to health care; they need paid time off; they need access to healthy co-working spaces; they need colleagues and networks of peers, and access to continuing education to learn how to advance and expand their capacities.

Beyond that, what most people need to make contract work habitable is the ability to control three things: their time, their opportunities, and chances to contribute to different networks of collaborators who will teach them new things that they can apply to the next project. If we equip them to control their participation in an economy—make it possible to step in and out of the market as needed to get sick, start families, learn new capacities to bring to different projects—they will be better able to bring their capacities to contract work.

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