Inside the A.I. Factory

Josh Dzieza, writing for New York in collaboration with the Verge, on the hidden human role in artificial intelligence:

Over the past six months, I spoke with more than two dozen annotators from around the world, and while many of them were training cutting-edge chatbots, just as many were doing the mundane manual labor required to keep AI running. There are people classifying the emotional content of TikTok videos, new variants of email spam, and the precise sexual provocativeness of online ads. Others are looking at credit-card transactions and figuring out what sort of purchase they relate to or checking e-commerce recommendations and deciding whether that shirt is really something you might like after buying that other shirt. Humans are correcting customer-service chatbots, listening to Alexa requests, and categorizing the emotions of people on video calls. They are labeling food so that smart refrigerators don’t get confused by new packaging, checking automated security cameras before sounding alarms, and identifying corn for baffled autonomous tractors.

The magical feeling of so many of our modern products and services is too often explained by throwing money at low-paid labourers. Same day delivery? Online purchases of anything? Expedited free returns? Moderation of comments and images? As much as it looks from our perspective like the work of advancements in computing power, none of it would be possible without tens of thousands of people doing their best to earn a living spending unpredictable hours doing menial tasks.

The extent to which that bothers you is a personal affair; I am not one to judge. At the very least, I think it is something we should all remember the next time we hear about a significant advancement in this space. There are plenty of engineers who worked hard and deserve credit, but there are also thousands of people labelling elbows in photos and judging the emotion of internet comments.