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How AI is creating ghost economy

Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley… by Mary L. Gray, Siddharth Suri, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, US $27.00, Pp 254, May 2019, ISBN 978-1328566249

In the last few years, the way we live has changed tremendously. We are employing Artificial Intelligence (AI) more and more to get things done. We little realize that there is the real human workforce that powers the AI but we cannot see it. These are the people who do “ghost work.” They do high-tech piecework. In Ghost Work, Anthropologist Mary L. Gray and computer scientist Siddharth Suri say that an estimated eight percent of Americans have worked at least once in this ghost economy. They earn less than legal minimum wages for traditional work. They don’t have health coverage and they can be fired any time without any reason. The reason is there are no labor laws to govern ghost work.

Gray and Suri argue that companies like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Uber cannot function smoothly without ghost workers. Gray and Suri argue that, beyond some basic decisions, today’s AI cannot function without humans in the loop. Whether it is delivering a relevant newsfeed or carrying out a complicated texted-in pizza order, when the AI trips up or cannot finish the job, thousands of businesses call on people to quietly complete the project. This new digital assembly line aggregates the collective input of distributed workers, ships pieces of projects rather than products, and operates across a host. In fact, the rise of this shadow workforce is part of a larger, more profound reorganization of employment itself. This yet-to-be-classified form of employment done on demand is neither inherently good nor bad. But, left without definition and veiled from consumers who benefit from it, these jobs can easily slip into ghost work. Businesses can collect projects from thousands of workers, paid by the task. Now they can depend on internet access, cloud computing, sophisticated database, and the engineering technique of human computation — people working in concert with AIs — to loop humans into completing projects that are otherwise beyond the ability of software alone. This fusion of code and human smarts is growing fast. Ghost Work discusses this fusion and the millions of people workers who step in when AI falls short. They are the humans behind the seemingly automated systems that we all take for granted. But modern AI systems don’t just need humans to answer an unfamiliar or challenging question; they also need humans to help them learn how to answer anything in the first place.

It is interesting to see how the ghost work work. A computer program is no more than a list of instructions that tell a computer what to do. When two software (or a piece of software and a piece of hardware) need to communicate, they must first establish a common language. They do so via an application programming interface or API. The API determines the common language by defining the list of instructions that a program will accept and what will happen after each instruction is executed. One could say that the API specifies the computer program’s “rules of engagement.” For example, there are hundreds if not thousands of different kinds of computers on the market right now, so writing a custom version of a software system for each type would be impossibly complex. But when all (or at least significant fractions) of the machines available obey the same API, programmers write codes once for all of these kinds of machinery, because the API ensures that all of the machines understand the same language.

Passionately written, Ghost Work is a very revealing work of scholarship. Mary L. Gray and computer scientist Siddharth Suri show how AI is dehumanizing work and changing the way we work. Gray and Suri argue that we can still restore the dignity of the faceless workers but first we need to understand how big corporations have turned human beings into small cogs in a big machine. Their argument is not that AI is replacing human beings, but that AI is hiding human workers. This seminal book on AI gives us a peek into the future of work which is now. Gray and Suri must be commended for this ground-breaking work on AI. It is a must-read for everyone interested in the future of work and Artificial Intelligence.

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