An Army of Precarious AI Workers: My New Op-Ed in ‘Il Manifesto’ (June 25, 2023)

In my editorial piece published on June 25, 2023, in “Il Manifesto,” I paint portrait of the hidden labor force that propels the artificial intelligence (AI) industry. The piece, titled “Intelligenza artificiale, l’esercito dei precari” (Artificial Intelligence, the Precarious Army), delves into the lives of microtask workers across the globe and their vital contributions to AI development.

Drawing insights from the report “Microtrabalho no Brasil” (Micro-Work in Brazil. Workers Behind AI?), published on June 19, 2023, by the LATRAPS research center (Brazil) in collaboration with DiPLab, I unveil a paradigm shift in the AI landscape. While the popular narrative often associates AI development with Silicon Valley, I highlight that the crucial ingredients of AI—data—are produced in emerging and developing countries.

My article discusses the role of international platforms like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, Appen, Telus, 2captcha, and Sama, where workers engage in tasks such as transcription, recording, tagging, and moderation. I draw a global map depicting an industrial army predominantly composed of individuals aged between 20 and 30, often living in precarious conditions. In many instances, these microtask workers possess higher education levels than the average in their countries but find themselves relegated to low-paying, short-term tasks.

This exploration of the AI labor landscape extends to regions like Latin America, where countries like Venezuela and Madagascar play critical roles. In Venezuela, amidst a decade-long political and economic crisis, workers specialize in annotating images for autonomous vehicles and facial and vocal recognition. In Madagascar, Western technology companies capitalize on tax incentives in free trade zones to outsource content moderation and document digitization.