Who is the human ghost in the machine?

Will intelligent robots soon be doing our thinking for us? To listen to the media, you’d think they already are. But as a new book (Ghost Work by Mary L. Gray and Siddharth Suri) makes clear, artificial intelligence (AI) isn’t as artificial as it’s made out to be.

Ghost workers do the mundane jobs our economy was supposed to automate.

The authors say 60% of all work will be on-demand by 2055 at the rate we are going. They cite the paradox of automation. This demonstrates that much of it is an illusion sustained by human intervention. An army of ghost workers hide beyond your Amazon Echo assistant. They watch the disembodied apps glowing on your iPhone screen. Their purpose? To intervene when algorithms trip up. They make sure the internet lives up to its promise.

Disposable ghost work

These ghost workers are on-demand, disposable people who work behind the curtain. In the world of ghost work, jobs last for seconds, not years. Workers spend far more time searching for quick gigs than actually performing them.

The conceit here is that even artificial intelligence isn’t up to a lot of tasks. So the internet actually works with millions of people doing tiny tasks more cheaply and faster than AI can. Their pay is pathetic.

Around the world, some 20 million of these ghosts are said to be at work. It is they who process tricky takeaway orders. They who verify your Uber driver’s picture when an algorithm fails to recognise their new haircut. One start-up has even hired people to pretend to be AI-powered chatbots.

The workers are all homeworkers. They get no offices, uniforms, computers, software, training, supervision, encouragement or praise. There are no bonuses, vacations, promotions or awards. They are nameless.

Alas, it’s easier and cheaper to employ humans to behave like machines than it is to develop machines that simulate human behaviour. Employers, and society at large must make sure that this new kind of work creates opportunity (rather than misery) for those who do it.

Photo by Tertia van Rensburg on Unsplash

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