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Google hired microworkers to train its controversial Project Maven AI (theverge.com)
53 points by anastalaz 11 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 38 comments





This is standard practice in AI training. There are countless workers in Asia (typically) who are perfectly willing to help train your algo for less pay than Western workers, and the location where the work is performed doesn't matter at all.

What would be news is if Google were paying $11/hr + social security, etc. just to have people tell an algo which pictures have a dog in them. That would put them at a competitive disadvantage.


> What would be news is if Google were paying $11/hr + social security, etc. just to have people tell an algo which pictures have a dog in them. That would put them at a competitive disadvantage.

Yes. Sometimes maximizing profits and having a functional society where everyone has a meal and home is incompatible. I would prefer to see that the long term viability of countries is put higher up than the short term profits of companies. And that is why it is so important to set all countries to the same standards of living (on the high-end preferably).


The companies are not going to do that sort of thing out of kindness. It's up to society to set up the appropriate tax regime.

Unless you regularly pay extra when you buy things it's silly to expect Alphabet to do so.

It's worrisome to me that a U.S. company helping the U.S. military is viewed as so controversial that it would cease to finish that work. I'm glad Amazon and Microsoft, among big tech cos, haven't caved in like Google has.

And yet Google has the gall to spend $5m on a Super Bowl ad touting how it helps veterans. Ridiculous.


I see a huge difference between "not helping the military" and "not helping create autonomous weapons". And our drone program is hardly military, it's a mostly CIA-led project to assassinate people without due process in areas we are not at war.

You have no idea what you are talking about. The vast majority of drone use is for military surveillance that have no strike capabilities, and are used to determine whether to put soldiers on the ground. Good drone surveillance is literally the best resource we have for preventing bad military outcomes. It saves lives, both American and other.

The problem with that claim is that a significant portion of our drone use does not take place in countries we are deploying soldiers. And an insane number of dead children keep turning up.

The problem is that technology developed for "good" drone surveillance can be transferred quite easily to drones with strike capabilities.

And by extension be able to make better and more accurate decisions leaving more people alive. I fail to see the issue here.

We seem to have an issue where we we end up targeting the wrong people, and this will make it possible to do so more accurately and easily.

Agree. But Google puts such moral handcuffs on itself, hardly worthy of any sympathy.

> he workers were hired through a crowdsourcing gig company outfit called Figure Eight, which pays as little at $1 an hour for people to perform short, seemingly mindless tasks.

Wow. Shouldn't there be a 'minimum gig fee' for this type of work? I mean many tasks may take a few seconds for a few cents, but if you work a solid hour and only earn $1 gross income, that seems extremely exploitative (even if the recipients are in Burundi).


I've picked up a few gigs on Mechanical Turk. You pick up the tasks that are worth your time (that you are qualified for). If you don't like the microtask for the price offered move onto the next one.

If the entity offering the microtasks (gig) don't see enough interest in their tasks, they can raise the bid.

I think that's extremely fair. Let the market dictate the price per task. How do you know what the right price should be?


Is the market really dictating anything at that price or is it desperate.

I don't think anyone with the power to dictate would accept a dollar an hour.

The right word for this is exploitation. Google and Figure Eight directly contributing to income inequality.


Except you have captured the essence of the market, a 'fair' price (in market terms) is one that leaves the seller thinking they got too little and the buyer thinking they paid too much. They were both right at the equilibrium point.

Exploitation occurs when you prevent the buyers or sellers in the market any ability to move. So if these buyers have no other opportunities or ways to change they can be exploited, if the sellers don't have any other buyers they can be exploited.

Neither Crowd Flower (Figure 8) nor Mechanical Turk "exploit" workers because the workers have a choice of tasks, and the option to add skills to open up other tasks. Nor can the workers "exploit" the people offering jobs because they cannot prevent another worker from taking a job at an offered price, even if they personally wouldn't take the job at that price.

What it does do though is allow workers who have a lower cost of living and expense rate to bid lower (or take jobs that pay less) and still cover there costs.


There is a time limit on securing food and shelter. If you spend 20 hours on being a Turk, that’s time lost doing something that may never sustain you or provide a road to sustaining yourself. But you don’t know that until you spend the time engaging with the system. And you may find yourself stuck, chasing short term prices, having lost your ability to move in the marketplace.

I don't disagree, that is one of the interesting concepts in the book on scarcity[1]. If you're operating at the limits of your demand for a resource it affects the way to reason about that resource and can lead to counter productive choices.

That said, if you aren't constrained to only doing mechanical turk or figure 8 things, then you have the option of doing something different, or adding in other resource streams. You you trade off the time vs money aspects of different work situations to achieve longer term stability. That doesn't apply of course to people who have extenuating circumstances that cut them off from any other revenue stream and that makes them vulnerable to exploitation.

[1] "Scarcity: Why having so little means so much", Sendhil Mullainathan


on right price: I think a livable wage is reasonable. Though market forces should generally push unskilled labor wages high enough to be livable (though no more than the bare minimum)

But for this type of task, that might be performed in poorest parts of the world, $1/hour may be a livable wage for very unskilled labor. So I'm willing to withhold judgement on that.


> Though market forces should generally push unskilled labor wages high enough to be livable

I do not see how the market forces can do that.

In the USA there is a lot of non-livable paying jobs that need to be complemented by public spending. For a person that has nothing, a salary that is not enough to pay for their basic needs is better than nothing. That creates a race to the bottom.

You get the lowest price independently of if people that do the job can make ends meet or not.


> if you work a solid hour and only earn $1 gross income, that seems extremely exploitative

If that $1 per hour provides you with a better income than your peers with less physical labor, then this doesn't sound exploitive at all.


(Especially if you sub-hire other people for 0.60$/hour, pocketing 0.40$/hour from each of them for ZERO effort.

Who then can sub-hire other people for 0.40$/hour, pocketing 0.20$/hour from each of them for ZERO effort.

Yes. In a perfect information market, this will not work. The people that can do the job for 0.40 will do it directly for that amount or they will get it for 0.60. But information is a scarcity for poor people and that makes the market very very inefficient with a lot of people getting part of the cake without adding any value.

On what grounds should an unrelated party (furyg3) force their will on two voluntarily trading parties, blocking their (presumably mutually beneficial, since voluntary) transaction?

That's a strangely oppressive, i-know-best-what's-good-for-you position.


On what grounds should an unrelated party (the government, via labor law) force their will on two voluntarily trading parties, blocking their transaction?

Because wage slavery exists and you can't shrug your shoulders and say "well, they're choosing to work for peanuts so it's fine!".


I'm sure this was all done above-board (i.e. in compliance with the local wage laws)

I think this is a moral question, and I don't see anyone suggesting that it is a legal question.

Just because something is legal does not make it right.


local wage laws are often set by governments who have been bought by corporations that benefit from the wage laws...

It remains amazing to me how Google, which has received a huge amount of media coverage for being an awesome place to work, can simultaneously draw a line in the sand and say "people who do certain tasks aren't Googlers, and will be treated with the minimum amount of consideration required by law".

I've seen it rationalized all kinds of ways like "engineers are high value and hard to recruit, so they need big salaries and perks, but an HVAC technician at a datacentre doesn't" but it all falls apart when you consider that nearly all white collar professionals at Google get generous salaries, benefits and bonuses, even those in saturated fields like law, marketing or HR and a trade worker at a datacentre actually is directly working on Google's business.


Well if people can keep justifying working for companies acting in unethical fashion. Why wouldn't companies think it is fine to bullshit their way out of phony outrage generated by media/social media.

> Well if people can keep justifying working for companies acting in unethical fashion.

I see quite often shifting the blame to employees. Does not make more sense that is the powerful companies that are expected to do the right thing instead of people with children to feed and mortgages to pay? It is way harder to do the right thing when your family wellbeing depends on it. Even worse when you need thousands of employees acting in a coordinating way to get any effect at all.


This is the whole point of globalization. Companies go and pay next to nothing for labor that would cost vastly more in developed nations. Ideally it gradually helps build up an economic system in the targeted nations at which point they move onto the next country where they can pay as little as possible and so on, again ideally gradually developing the entire world as you skip from nation to nation.

As a 'closer to home' example, IBM now has more employees in India than anywhere else. Here [1] are the Glassdoor figures for IBM India. The average compensation for a "software engineer" is $8390 per year - about $23 per day. If we assume an 8 hour work day that's less than $3/hour. Bump that up a bit because of time off/holidays and the average real compensation is going to be around $3.50 an hour. And that's for a software engineer at IBM in India, which is a 'less undeveloped' nation than many others. $1/hour for mindless tasks is already not looking so bad.

I'm not a fan of globalization, but for different reasons. It may be arguably exploitative of less developed areas, but it also has a negative affect on more developed nations as well. IBM can hire a dozen software engineers in India for the price of one graduate in e.g. America. There's a reason they're shifting their labor to India. This is completely fine, yet then they turn around and continue to rely on the US as the primary market for their products. E.g. in the case of Figure Eight they source their labor from the poorest places on this Earth and then turn around and sell the 'product' to Google, Facebook, Twitter, Mozilla, American Express, etc. [2]

---

To clarify one thing, I do not think engaging in these practices is morally wrong. My objection is of a social/economic nature. I think these practices are a net negative on the countries where these companies' sell their product while sidestepping their labor standards and wages in creation of that product. In other words this is a practice I would engage in as an individual concerned for myself, but simultaneously lobby the government to work to curtail as an individual concerned for my nation.

[1] - https://www.glassdoor.com/Salary/IBM-India-Salaries-EI_IE354...

[2] - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Figure_Eight_Inc.


Because the only thing better than building an AI to help identify people to kill with impunity, is building an AI to help identify peopl to kill with impunity using slave labor.


That's how you label your data. Nothing newsworthy here.

They need better terminology. "microworkers" sounds bad, like they're under-payed (they are).

Try "organic AI" or "incentivized crowdsourcing".


mTurk, Crowd Flower, Spare 5, etc. are all popular platforms for gathering labeled training data. It’s a race to the bottom for lowest price per label while maintaining reasonably consistent quality.



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