The capabilities of AI are endless and when used in the right way have the potential to make a real difference to our everyday lives. 

Despite its potential, the ethics around AI and the data labelling process aren’t being addressed. We’re seeing increasing cases of exploitative practices as larger companies seek labelling and annotation from business process outsourcing (BPO) firms, a crucial part of the ongoing growth in AI and machine learning, 

While AI has only recently landed into the wider cultural and public zeitgeist of the day, its development especially over the past decade has created a steady and ultimately insatiable demand for data. However, it wasn’t just raw data that the development of AI was and still is dependent on, but annotated or labelled data, which relies on vast amounts of manpower and labour. 

This is where the data labelling industry and business process outsourcing companies have emerged as such important cogs in the AI machine, as they provide labelled datasets for machine learning models to learn from. 

Exploitative working conditions

We’ve seen firms such as Scale AI and Sama, to name just two, gain success with huge valuations by providing labelled data quickly and cheaply. But AI’s secret, or in reality not so secret sauce, is becoming increasingly dependent on unethical and exploitative working conditions and practices. 

Time has reported OpenAI was using workers in Kenya on less than $2 an hour and other firms use workers in the Philippines, Vietnam and Venezuela, on even worse pay at barely 90 cents an hour. They work in atrocious conditions with intrusive CCTV systems monitoring worker’s performance. A further damning report found that “a timer ticked away at the top left of the screen, without a clear deadline or apparent way to pause it to go to the bathroom”. 

Another unfortunate occurrence is that there appears to be a lot of unpaid work that many large companies refuse to address. Training on labelling platforms, learning how to do something, fixing mistakes or providing samples for these large customers is often left unpaid. These dynamics are commonplace in what are now being labelled as click farms. 

Time to take a stand

So it has to be now that the sector actively takes a stand against such practices to avoid this race to the bottom. Society can undeniably experience and realise huge benefits through the continued development of AI, but to achieve this on the backs of undervalued and poorly treated workers is simply wrong. Also make no mistake about it, the current state of play means certain individuals are set to make billions of dollars off the back of these unethical practices.

Our company requires all workforce partners that we engage adhere to a strong set of ethical guidelines that provide a higher threshold of minimum pay; better working conditions for both training and production; timelines aligned with standard business schedules and calendars (e.g. a 40-hour week with holiday time off) and other important expectations such as high-speed internet connections. With thousands of data labellers working for our customer’s AI efforts – through our platform – our goal has been to elevate all stakeholders in AI with fair pay, fair conditions, fair contracts, fair representation and fair management.

The rapid rise in AI we’ve seen over recent months has led to many raising ethical questions and concerns about its advancement. This has focused on its potential to pose significant risks to humanity and society, varying from threatening people’s jobs and livelihoods to its ability to spread misinformation. However, the ethical concerns around data labelling hasn’t received adequate attention. 

Understanding generative AI crucial to addressing risks

Human-first approach

The issue ultimately goes right to the heart of whether we use AI as a tool to improve society or not, just as much misinformation or a threat to jobs. 

If we are to create a future where AI contributes positively to society, we have to always adopt a human first approach. This technology has to be designed, developed and implemented with humans always at the forefront, yet currently we’re falling at the first hurdle. How can we trust AI to be used for the betterment of the human experience if its development is reliant on the exploitation of people it’s supposed to benefit? 

Leaders in AI and ML are failing in their ethical responsibilities when it comes to the development of AI. Adhering to basic industry standards is just that, basic, the minimum we expect from those supposedly leading innovation. We need to come together and collectively take a stand against driving the lowest fees for annotation, elevate our BPO partners away from being considered simply “click farms”, and demand best practices in all areas.

The only way to guarantee an ethical future for the development of AI and ML practices is to bring the conversation to the table and expose those who cut corners to get ahead. AI’s growth is certain, but it’s down to us as an industry to ensure we’re doing things the right way.

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