Saturday, May 15, 2021

The Grim Reality of Jobs in Robotics and AI

The reality is that AI is in fact generating a large number of jobs already. That is the good news. The bad news is that they are mostly - to put it bluntly - crap jobs. 

There are several categories of such jobs. 

At the benign end of the spectrum is the work of annotating images, i.e. looking at images and identifying features then labelling them. This is AI tagging. This work is simple and incredibly dull but important because it generates training data sets for machine learning systems. Those systems could be AIs for autonomous vehicles and the images are identifying bicycles, traffic lights etc. The jobs are low-skill low-pay and a huge international industry has grown up to allow the high tech companies to outsource this work to what have been called white collar sweatshops in China or developing countries. 

A more skilled version of this kind of job are translators who are required to ‘assist’ natural language translation systems who get stuck on a particular phrase or word.

And there is another category of such jobs that are positively dangerous: content moderators. These are again outsourced by companies like Facebook, to contractors who employ people to filter abusive, violent or illegal content. This can mean watching video clips and making a decision on whether the clip is acceptable or not (and apparently the rules are complex), over and over again, all day. Not surprisingly content moderators suffer terrible psychological trauma, and often leave the job burned out after a year or two. Publicly Facebook tells us this is important work, yet content moderators are paid a fraction of what staffers working on the company campus earn. So not that important.

But jobs created by AI and automation can also be physically dangerous. The problem with real robots, in warehouses for instance, is that like AIs they are not yet good enough to do everything in the (for the sake of argument) Amazon warehouse. So humans have to do the parts of the workflow that robots cannot yet do and - as we know from press reports - these humans are required to work super fast and behave, in fact, as if they are robots. And perhaps the most dehumanizing part of the job for such workers is that, like the content moderators (and for that matter Uber drivers or Deliveroo riders), their workflows are managed by algorithms, not humans.

We roboticists used to justifiably claim that robots would do jobs that are too dull, dirty and dangerous for humans. It is now clear that working as human assistants to robots and AIs in the 21st century is dull, and both physically and/or psychologically dangerous. One of the foundational promises of robotics has been broken. This makes me sad, and very angry.

The text above is a lightly edited version of my response to the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) request for comments on a draft horizon scanning article. The final piece How technology is accelerating changes in the way we work was published a few weeks ago.

1 comment:

  1. One of the earliest documented fights of humans against automation was the battle of the Luddites against the weaving machines. The luddites where small crofting based enterprises making cloth.

    The Luddites lost, and they where replaced by huge factories staffed by humans feeding massive weaving machines. The wotk was dangerous, unskilled, low paid (often below starvation levels) and lead to unions.

    I have been called a Luddite because i made comments about the stupidity of blind mass adoption and praise of profit enhancing automation.

    Some bits of AI are positive, enhanced cancer diagnosis is one example, but, that wasn't done solely for profit enhancing reasons (radiologists dont want to spend all day in darkened rooms staring at xrays in mass screening programs, they have too much work and not enough colleagues, this is a world wide problem).

    We should revisit the lessons the Luddites provided.

    (I come from the north of england where the textile factories of the 1900s now stand empty, the ancestors of the Luddites are literally buried in the hilla / mountains that surround those dark satanic mills. Visiting those mills on school trips as a boy was an experience that showed me that not all technology is good)