Big Tech Push for Automation Hides the Grim Reality of “Microwork” | Phil jones


When customers in London’s Hackney district shop at the new Amazon Fresh store, they no longer pay a cashier but simply leave with their merchandise. Amazon describes “just shopping” as an effortless consumer experience. The rise of automated stores during the pandemic is just the tip of the iceberg. Robotic floor cleaners have been introduced in hospitals, supermarkets and schools. Fast food restaurants employ burgers cooking robots and chatbots. And delivery robots are being deployed at an accelerated pace. As Anuja Sonalker, CEO of Steer Tech, a tech company specializing in self-parking, worryingly said last year: “Humans are biological risks, machines are not. “

With the realization that machines are immune to viruses and social distancing, we have seen the return of an apocalyptic consensus: according to a recent prediction, up to half of all work tasks are at risk of being automated by 2025. Such grim forecasts point to a world where robots do all the work and humans are tossed in the dustbin of history.

We have been here before. Throughout capitalist history, times of crisis have given rise to concerns about robots stealing our jobs. After the 2008 financial crash, a series of studies underline a tsunami of automation that would swallow up half of the world’s work in the decades to come. While this much prophesied dystopia has yet to happen, a less spectacular but equally grim scenario grows in its shadow: the rise of micro-work. In short, microwork refers to the human “jobs” of pushing artificial intelligence in the right direction. Workers, mostly in the Global South, sit in front of computers clicking on images that, for example, show autonomous vehicles how to navigate city centers, facial recognition cameras how to spot emotions, and computer software. marketing how to spot horse breeds.

“For a dime, you could pay to have someone tell you if there’s a human in a photo,” said Jeff Bezos, at the public opening of Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk), the first and the most infamous of these sites. Like other similar platforms, such as Clickworker, which combine underemployed and unemployed people with piecework online, Mechanical Turk operates on a simple principle. The platform hosts subcontractors, often large technology companies like twitter, which outsource short data tasks such as tagging images – lasting from seconds to minutes – to workers with few labor rights or secure schedules.

Such sites experienced a user boom during the pandemic. In an age when many have lost their jobs and are stuck indoors, a job that only requires an internet connection and a laptop can provide a much needed source of income. Platforms often present work as the preserve of glamorous young freelancers. But the fuzzy promises of the telework dream mask a brutal reality. Many workers at these sites have few other options, or are otherwise excluded from the formal economy. They may reside in poor rural areas, jail Where refugee camps, and find micro-work through non-government programs that aim to “Give work, not help”. A World Bank researcher in 2012 wrote of a situation where millions of small digital tasks generated “thousands of jobs”. But micro-work is often so sporadic and poorly paid that it can hardly be called “work”. In 2018, former middle-class Venezuelans facing increasingly dire economic conditions sat in front of laptops and annotated images of urban areas to form self-driving vehicles. Workers were paid by the task and in some cases earned less than $ 30 per week.

In many ways the work differs little from the survivalism of salary hunter-gatherersWho spend their days doing a dizzying array of odd jobs such as shining shoes, selling handkerchiefs and picking up trash. With jobs at micro-work sites lasting as short as seconds, workers need to continually looking for work, and can be contracted by more than 50 “claimants” in a day. Cut into tiny segments, the jobs are opaque, often surreal and sometimes humiliating. A task on Mechanical Turk would have asked workers – or “Turkers” – post pictures of their feet for unexplained reasons.

Opacity, however, is not a software issue. By design, platforms obscure operations and prevent workers from organizing, promising entrepreneurs a dream scenario: all work without the issues associated with an actual workforce. Impenetrable rating systems, which allow entrepreneurs to reject “bad” tasks from the outset, only allow workers to contact and “challenge” contractors, who are not required to respond. Salary theft is therefore all too common – a report by the International Labor Organization found that on a major platform, around 15% of all jobs are unpaid.

In a statement, which was amended at length, Amazon Web Services said, “MTurk is a marketplace where applicants determine how much they are willing to pay a worker to perform a specific task. The amount of compensation that workers receive depends on the price set by the claimants, the number of tasks performed by the workers and the quality of their work. Most workers see MTurk as a part-time job or a paid hobby, and they appreciate the ability to choose what tasks they want to work on and work as much or as little as they want. While the overall job rejection rate for workers is very low (less than 1%), they also have access to a number of metrics that can help them determine if they want to work on a job, including the requestor history of accepting tasks.

The freedoms many of us have enjoyed working from home during the pandemic are the flip side of new kinds of control and surveillance. Meetings on Teams and Zoom send data directly to Microsoft and Amazon. Militant bosses forced employees to keep their webcams on to display their faces and keystrokes. Like workers at microwork sites, our work is increasingly captured as data to fuel artificial intelligence. How the data is then used remains a mystery. Maybe to show the AI ​​directly how to do our job; or maybe to expose AI to data about the emotions we feel at work. One thing seems clear: more and more the primary or secondary role of work is no longer just to work, but to show robots how to do our work, even if this aspiration remains in many cases a distant fantasy.

But the picture is not entirely gloomy. Just as these sites serve as experimental laboratories for new forms of exploitation and control, they also generate new strategies of resistance. Instead of union representation, workers resort to letter writing campaigns to draw attention to their work, forum that challenge the platform, and browser plug-ins spotlight unscrupulous entrepreneurs. Online forums become loose support networks that offer advice and guidance to users of the platform. These tactics are still in their infancy. But as all of our jobs are increasingly driven by the demands of ‘big data’, we’ll need similar tactics to regain control of our working lives – as well as take note of those who make our lives so seemingly digital. effortlessly “.

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