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Algorithm boss and ghost workers

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“My boss is an algorithm” (Mon patron est un algorithme) is a documentary of investigative journalism produced by Premiere Ligne productions released in September 2019 in France.

It describes a few evolutions in work, where people are no longer employed by humans but directed by certain settings and patterns, with a big share of artificial intelligence involved.

One specific area of application of these algorithms struck me and led me to rethink my subject of research to incorporate it within. It caught my attention regarding the ethics of the use of trained models of machine learning, which is usually pointed out for issues of biases, or data collection. What I would want to focus on is their use and breeding of a new proletariat.

Machines are not able to train algorithms of AI, for all tasks involving labeling, it is human forces who are performing them. They are not employed by any of the companies who offer this service, Amazon is the leader, Figure 8, Microsoft, has contributors all around the world, connecting to their websites to perform micro-tasks, for a few cents an hour. Without the millions of invisible workers, mostly isolated and in precarious situations, there wouldn’t be any Artificial Intelligence. It could be that these companies are not generating poverty, and might argue that people are connecting in full freedom to their websites, but they are building on a fault, they exist and prosper thanks to human forces.

This vision is far from the glamourous nomadic societies, theorised in the last century, and put forward when it comes to the ones for whom it is a choice of comfort. Networks take advantage of giving access to people who are in remote areas.

The tasks themselves are somehow dehumanising, repetitive, and require you to abstract yourself from your own judgments to the benefit of precise charts defined by tech giants. They are the ones shaping the social values that will be enforced.

This subject has led to very little research and awareness when it raises fundamental.

Notes on the documentary:

Olivier Bousquet, responsible for AI at Google Europe, shows the use of Machine Learning through AutoML, a Google-powered data training tool.

Figure 8 is a company specialised in manual labelling of data sets. It is not unique, Jeff Bezos invented the concept with Amazon Mechanical Turk, as long as Microsoft to name the biggest ones, all using the services of “click workers”. Lukas Biewald founded Figure 8 in 2007, and sold it in 2019 for 300 million dollars to the company Appen.

At the Commonwealth Club conference on the 3rd of March 2010, he stated his vision of employment at the age of the internet and a part of his financial prosperity:

“With new technologies, you can hire someone very easily, make them work for 10 minutes, pay them a misery, and toss them away when you don’t need them anymore”.

According to him, 100.000 people consistently contribute to the datasets, by regularly performing microtasks, around the US and in the world, and millions connect and contribute on a more sporadic basis.

When challenged about the conditions of work of these people, he stops the interview. His company has fed all of the world's biggest companies, ranging from Google to American Express, Mcdonalds, Samsung, too many to mention, and too many to put on the “wall of fame” of his offices.

As he describes it, Figure 8 takes its name from the supposed loop between people and technologies, working together towards a brighter future.

The journalists managed to meet with a couple of these contributors, after months of research.

  • Jared Mansfield is an occasional contributor to figure 8, he has a job selling chicken at a supermarket for a salary of 1500 dollars/month. He connects to figure 8 to complete his revenues. They show him work for 30 minutes, his task is to label products, teaching the machine what item is a “pasta with cheese” and which are not. In half an hour he is able to answer 18 questions, making 15 cents. That’s 30 cents of dollars an hour.

  • The second contributor is Dawn Carbone, a 46 years old single mother of three living in subsidised housing in the region of Maine US. One of her children has autism, which requires her mother to be present when she gets home from school at 15h, and to be able to come to get her when needed. The region has few job opportunities and is in difficult climatic situations with regular snow events.

She has been working for figure8 for 3 years full time, 8 hours a day, five days a week.

On good days she makes 5 dollars an hour, other times it's a few cents, for an average of 250 dollars a month.

  • Christy Milland is an Amazon Mechanical Turk contributor. What she explains concerns tasks she was performing for Google in 2017. She explains how she was asked to work on aerial images, mostly shot by night in the desert, with mainly cars and people walking around, and she would need to indicate where she thought the people would be heading towards, where they would be a few seconds after. She first believed it was for an application geared towards transportation, before realising it could only be a drone, for whom she was indicating where to shoot.

After protests from their office workers, Google withdrew from that project, launched by the US Army in 2017 under the name “Project MAVEN”.

Jeanine Berg is a specialist of the question of web workers at the International Labour Organisation, where they seem worried about this phenomenon.

She explains how globalisation has brought a global workforce in the industrial sector. That would be another step, one that concerns services, reduced to microtasks that can be performed from anywhere. All the workers of the world are put in competition, which allows them to lower their salaries. According to their report, these workers are paid 3,55 dollars an hour on average.

Another type of web workers are what Facebook calls “content reviewers”. They are never hired directly by Facebook, who would rather subcontract it to others like the multinationals Accenture, Majorelle, Cognizant…

For 800 euros a month, in the example of Accenture as a subcontractor of Facebook in Portugal, people will be trained for 3 weeks on the way they should perform the tasks, before starting their job at “cleaning the web”. They will be exposed for the whole day to images of rare violence, pornography, hate speech, that they will have to classify not according to their perception. To the journalist infiltrating the job, the trainer would point out “your problem is that you are reasoning according to your point of view, when you should only apply the rules of Facebook”, which is presented as fair as Facebook is the company, and it would only be logical for them to apply their point of view.

The content is classified with labels such as “Delete”, “Mark as Cruel”...

Several former contractors suffer from PTSD after being exposed to these images, making less than 4 dollars an hour.


Journal: Le 1, Les nouveaux prolétaires du web, 25 Septembre 2019.

Cash Investigation, Mon patron est un algorithme, September 2019.

Things to look further into:

The work of Sarah Roberts, UCLA, on content reviewers.

French deputy Barbara Gomez.

Jeanine Berg and the report on the web workers for the ILO.

Lilly Irani, a Researcher at the University of San Diego, specialises in the work culture in the sector of technologies.

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