Grooming data for the machines has a human cost. The Verge reports that startup Vainu is using prisoners in Finland to tag Finnish-language articles. The company uses Mechanical Turk to do this for other languages, but Finnish-speaking turks are hard to come by. So they get (and pay) prison inmates to do it.
There are legit concerns of exploiting prisoners for low-wage labor, but perhaps a broader concern is that this hints at a bleak future of work in the age of the algorithm. Indeed this “future” is already here for a growing segment of humans—with Mechanical-Turk-level labor turns out to be, literally, prison labor.
This type of job tends to be “rote, menial, and repetitive,” says Sarah T. Roberts, a professor of information science at the University of California at Los Angeles who studies information workers. It does not require building high level of skill, and if a university researcher tried to partner with prison laborers in the same way, “that would not pass an ethics review board for a study.” While it’s good that the prisoners are being paid a similar wage as on Mechanical Turk, Roberts points out that wages on Mechanical Turk are extremely low anyway. One recent research paper found that workers made a median wage of $2 an hour.
As we design the future of technology, we also design the future of work. What might we do to improve the quality and pay of labor required to make automated systems work?