ChatGPT and the sweatshops powering the digital age

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The latest ChatGPT revelations are yet another reminder of widespread labor exploitation in digital innovation.

On January 18, Time magazine published revelations that did not surprise many people working in artificial intelligence. The news pertains to ChatGPT, an advanced AI chatbot, regarded as one of the most intelligent AI systems ever built and feared as a new frontier in potential plagiarism and erosion of craft in writing.

Many wondered how ChatGPT, which stands for Chat Generative Pre-Trained Transformer, improved upon earlier versions of this technology that would quickly descend into disrepute. The answer came in a Time magazine piece: Dozens of Kenyan workers were paid less than $2 an hour to process endless amounts of violent and hateful material marketing a system primarily meant to secure Western users. To be.

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It should be obvious to anyone paying attention that our current paradigm of digitization has a labor problem. We have moved away from the ideal of an open Internet built around communities of shared interests, dominated by the commercial privileges of a handful of companies based in specific geographic regions.


In this model, large companies maximize extraction and accumulation for their owners at the expense of not only their employees but users. Users are sold the lie that they are participating in a community, but the more dominant these corporations become, the more reinforced the unequal power between owners and users.

“Community” increasingly means that ordinary people absorb the ethical and social costs of the uncontrolled growth of these companies, while their owners absorb the profits and accolades. And a critical mass of low-paid labor is contracted out under the weakest terms legally possible in order to maintain the illusion of a better internet.

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ChatGPT is the latest innovation to incorporate this.

Much has been written about the models of Facebook, YouTube and content moderation that ChatGPT really provides the blueprint for outsourcing. Content moderators are tasked with consuming a constant stream of the worst things people have put out on these platforms and removing it or flagging it for further actions. Often these posts are about sexual and other forms of violence.

Citizens of the countries where the companies are located have sued for the psychological toll that the work has taken on them. For example, in 2020, Facebook was forced to pay $52m to US employees for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) they experienced after working as content moderators.

While there is increasing general awareness of the secondary trauma and toll that violence causes people, we still do not fully understand the effects on the human body from being exposed to such material for a full work week. What an effect.

We know that journalists and aid workers, for example, often return from conflict zones with severe symptoms of PTSD, and that even reading reports that emerge from these conflict zones can have a psychological impact. Similar studies on the impact of content moderation work on people are difficult to complete because of the non-disclosure agreements these moderators are often asked to sign before taking on the job.

We also know, through testimony provided by Facebook whistle-blower Frances Haugen, that the decision to invest less in proper content moderation was an economic decision. Twitter, under Elon Musk, has moved to cut costs by firing a large number of content moderators.

Failure to provide proper content moderation has resulted in an increasing amount of toxicity in social networking platforms. The losses from this have had a major impact in the analog world.

In Myanmar, Facebook has been accused of enabling genocide; In Ethiopia and the United States, for allowing the incitement to violence.

Indeed, the area of ​​content moderation and its associated problems are a good example of what is wrong with the current digitalization model.

The decision to use a Kenyan company to teach American chatbots not to be hateful should be understood in the context of a deliberate decision to accelerate the accumulation of profits at the expense of meaningful handrails to users.

These companies promise that the human element is only a stopgap response before AI systems are advanced enough to work alone. But this claim does nothing for the workers who are being exploited today. Nor does it address the fact that people – the languages ​​they speak and the meanings they assign to contexts or situations – are highly malleable and dynamic, which means that content moderation will not end.

So what will be done for the moderators who are being harmed today, and how will business practice fundamentally change to protect the moderators who will surely be needed tomorrow?

If it’s all starting to sound like sweatshops are working the digital age, it should – because they are. A model of digitalization led by an instinct to protect the interests of those who profit most from the system rather than those who actually work it, leaving billions vulnerable to myriad forms of social and economic exploitation is, the effects of which we still do not fully understand.

It is time to put an end to the myth that digitalisation led by corporate interests is somehow going to escape all the old excesses of mercantilism and greed, as the owners of these companies wear T-shirts and promise to do no evil.

History is replete with examples of how, left to their own devices, those who have the interest and the opportunity to accumulate will do so and squander the rights we have to protect the most vulnerable among us. need to.

We need to go back to the basics of why we needed to fight for and articulate what labor rights were all about in the last century. Labor rights are human rights, and this latest scandal is a timely reminder that we lose a lot when we stop paying attention to them because we get distracted by the latest shiny new thing.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

ChatGPT and the sweatshops powering the digital age

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