Millions of human workers in digital sweatshops

power Artificial Intelligence

by Michael Novick, Anti-Racist Action-LA

The current strikes by screen-writers and actors in the WGA and SAG-AFTRA have focused attention on the use of AI– “Artificial Intelligence” using large language models by big corporations — to try to automate creative jobs and other work, through the use of computers that can simulate voices, generate designs, and produce meaningful literary and analytical texts. Fears of such automation have generated widespread support for the striking Hollywood workers. But there’s another aspect to the whole process that has gone un-noticed.

Occasionally, however, the truth leaks out even in corporate media. In the Washington Post, Rebecca Tan and Regine Cabato recently reported the dirty little secret behind AI — it depends on exploiting tens or hundreds of thousands of underpaid foreign workers.

“In a coastal city in the southern Philippines, thousands of young workers log online every day to support the booming business of artificial intelligence,” they report.

“In dingy internet cafes, jam-packed office spaces or at home, they annotate the masses of data that [US] companies need to train their artificial intelligence models. … More than 2 million people in the Philippines perform this type of ‘crowdwork,’ … as part of AI’s vast underbelly. While AI is often thought of as human-free machine learning, the technology actually relies on the labor-intensive efforts of a workforce spread across much of the Global South and often subject to exploitation. … Low-quality data yields low-quality AI. So click by click, a largely unregulated army of humans is transforming the raw data into AI feedstock.”

In the Philippines, they report, at least 10,000 of these workers do this labor on a platform called Remotasks, which is owned by the $7 billion San Francisco start-up Scale AI.

Remotasks describes itself this way on its website: “What’s Remotasks? Remotasks is an online tasking platform focusing on building technologies related to AI (artificial intelligence), neural networks, and machine learning. We work with different companies to help them form tomorrow’s smarter gadgets – from self-driving cars to more intelligent AI systems. With our Remotaskers, we help deliver various output[s] to clients that can help them develop their AI projects – this time with our invaluable human input.

“However, unlike other online tasking platforms, Remotasks won’t force you to do the same tasks over and over again. Thanks to our continuous stream of orders, our Remotaskers can engage in a wide variety of Tasks – from simple orders to more challenging projects.”

Remotasks may admit that human input is “invaluable”, but they are essential arbitrageurs generating colossal profits out of the artificially low cost of human labor in the Third World applied “remotely” into the high-value-added products of Silicon Valley (whose value lies in part in their capacity to eliminate the need for higher-paid labor in the US itself).

Hiding in plain sight in AI, as it does in the extraction of cobalt in the Congo or lithium on Native lands in the US for the new “green” energy economy, is the reality of imperialism, neo-colonialism, land theft and genocide. Similarly, attention is focused on traffic jams created by robotaxis in SF, but the larger reality is that self-driving car research in the US is being driven principally by the US Army Tank Division to build autonomous battle vehicles. That’s why all the Big Tech companies like Google and Amazon are now major military contractors on cost-plus “Defense” Department contracts.

The empire is a fractal or holographic system — at every level of magnification and within every cell or fragment of the system, the reality of the empire is omnipresent and inescapable. Whether you are organizing for worker rights or traffic safety or the environment in the US, the fact of the matter is, you are confronted by an empire that is your intractable enemy. The only way to win in the long run is to recognize this reality, this enemy, and strategize accordingly, in solidarity with those millions in Asia, Africa, and Indigenous America, north or south.

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