Posted by Flux on 

26 September 2021

What’s trending?
As AI continues to proliferate, there are companies which pretend to offer AI-powered services but which actually employ humans to do the work. Some ‘pseudo-AI’ companies have discovered that it is cheaper and easier to get humans to act as robots than it is to get machines to act like humans.  According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, ”Whether it is Facebook’s trending topics; Amazon’s delivery of Prime orders via Alexa; or the many instant responses of bots we now receive in response to consumer activity or complaint, tasks advertised as AI-driven involve humans, working at computer screens, paid to respond to queries and requests sent to them.” San Jose-based company Edison Software went through personal emails of hundreds of users, with their identities redacted, to improve a “smart replies” feature. They did not mention that humans would view users’ emails in their privacy policy. Of course this sleight of hand is not true across the board, as there are many companies utilising bona fide artificial intelligence.

Why is it important?
This is a segment of contract labour hidden beneath a layer of AI. The bulk of this type of work is content moderation which is outsourced to workers around the globe. Several problems arise as there is little transparency about their training, work environments or protocols for making editorial decisions. Many of these workers typically receive minimum wages for a job that others may find too tedious or demeaning.  Then there is the very real problem of privacy and confidentiality. Algorithms can be devised to protect data, but by inserting a human in the loop, data leaks become a real possibility. This is especially critical in areas like healthcare, finance, or government systems. 

What can businesses do about it?
If you are contemplating using the services of a company that claims to be AI driven, do your homework. Enquire if there are any humans in the AI process, especially if confidentiality is a critical factor. Also, if employment fairness is a priority, you presumably would not wish to be complicit in a system of low wages – another reason why tech companies need to be transparent about their practices.  They should be accountable for and to these ‘invisible’ workers, not to mention their customers. A company that claims one thing and acts in another way does not inspire confidence. If you’re an investor take special care: it’s not unheard of for companies  to tell investors they have developed scalable AI technology while secretly relying on human intelligence.

By Faeeza Khan

Image credit: Kevin Ku 

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