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Guiding Trend 4 July Jul 2017 1142 4 July 2017

Micro Jobs: how machines and artificial intelligence are “trained"

Behind virtual assistants, artificial intelligence and Facebook pages that present hundreds of thousands of likes, there are microworkers based in India, Bangladesh and Nepal, who are paid even 1 cent per task.

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Recognise the animals in an image, solve a captcha, transcribe the text of a postcard, click repeatedly on “like”. Behind artificial intelligence, virtual assistants and Facebook posts that are shared a million times, there are microworkers based especially in emerging Countries. They are paid even 1 dollar cent per task.These are the new digital workers who are on piecework. They “train” apps and machines we use every day. A new work force with adverts and a custom-made labour market. Based especially in India, Bangladesh and Nepal.

This is what Antonio Casilli, Associate Professor of Digital Humanities at the Telecommunication College of the Paris Institute of Technology said in his presentation at the “Jobless Society Forum” organised by the Feltrinelli Foundation, Milan.

Artificial intelligence is not born so intelligent but is “fed” by human intelligence. If you need a system that automatically identifies cats in YouTube videos, a human must first show the artificial intelligence what a cat is and its shape by tagging millions of pictures of cats. Hence, this tagging process becomes a job. And a certain sum is paid for every tag entered. The skills required are low, and so is creativity; and the wages are lower still.

But the market value of micro jobs on piecework is all but low. A calculation made by the World Bank indicates that the value of microworkers can reach up to 400 million dollars. Overall, the online outsourcing market has a value of 4.8 billion dollars, which is expected to grow up to 15-25 billion by 2020.

«The effect of artificial intelligence on work is not extensive replacement of workers by artificial intelligence but, rather, the substitution of formal work with invisiblised temporary micro jobs», explained Antonio Casilli. «Though we speak of micro jobs, it is an actual labour market and not to a niche phenomenon. There are with actual job adverts».

For an overall view of digital micro job offers, visit Amazon Mechanical Turk, the platform created by Amazon where companies and developers purchase human intelligence for their applications. For one dollar cent they ask, for instance, to collect e-mail addresses through YouTube channels and to solve the related captchas. For 5 dollar cents the task requested is to write what can be seen in the images of old postcards. Then, the most famous platforms include Upwork, the Chinese Zhubajie, Freelancer and Taskcn. By putting together the main 13 platforms, we count a mass of 100 million registered workers. An important part of the workforce. Without forgetting the highly secret click factories, which are also known as click farms, where digital workers take it in turns to click on some links or enter likes on Facebook pages that they actually did not choose.

But, after all, each of us, in his small framework, is an invisible microworker who works to train artificial intelligence. Let’s consider Google Translate, for instance. If we are proposed a translation that we do not like, we are invited to suggest our version. Google records our translation and stores it. So, we have worked for the Big G, obviously free of charge.