Lawmakers investigate “ghost workers” at top AI companies

September 13, 2023

Ghost worker AI

A coalition of Democrat lawmakers led by Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey and Washington Representative Pramila Jayapal is illuminating the plight of “ghost workers” in top tech firms. 

These workers, often contracted and underpaid, are instrumental in tasks such as data labeling and content moderation, which are essential to AI development. 

“Despite the essential nature of this work, millions of data workers around the world perform these stressful tasks under constant surveillance, with low wages and no benefits,” wrote the lawmakers in a letter directed to the CEOs of nine companies, including Amazon, Alphabet, Microsoft, and Meta Platforms. 

The letter delves into the concerning conditions under which these workers operate. “Workers are expected to screen out dangerous chatbot answers, but they may have little time to assess an answer’s safety,” the lawmakers added.

This investigation demands transparency from tech giants about their data workforces, including specifics about working conditions, breaks, appeal processes, and mental health resources. 

Content moderation is a controversial job

In July and August, Kenyan workers at data company Sama petitioned their government in complaint of working conditions for OpenAI projects.

Specifically, Sama employees had to sort and label text containing grotesque and traumatic information to improve ChatGPT’s filters. 

Content moderation has often been criticized as a psychologically traumatic job that often comes with low pay and limited access to help and advice.

While AI companies like OpenAI are developing automated approaches to content moderation and labeling, the role of human workers remains intrinsic to building the safe AI products we take for granted. 

Kenyan workers and other content moderators have suffered from PTSD and serious mental health issues due to their work. 

“Tech companies must not build AI on the backs of exploited workers,” stressed the Democrats, including Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. 

The initiative coincides with the first AI Insight Forum held by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, also touching on ethical labor practices in the AI industry.

Liz Shuler, the president of the A.F.L-C.I.O. Union, stated at the Forum, “Workers are tired of being guinea pigs in an A.I. live experiment.”

“These tech moguls are under-paying workers, failing to provide them basic protections and benefits, and subjecting them to an extensive web of surveillance in order to prop up their business,” said Senator Markey in an emailed statement.

The public only sees the front-end of AI products. Behind them doesn’t just lie computers and hardware but vast teams of human workers, many of whom play a pivotal yet hidden role in the technology’s development. 

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Sam Jeans

Sam is a science and technology writer who has worked in various AI startups. When he’s not writing, he can be found reading medical journals or digging through boxes of vinyl records.


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