Venezuelans Teaching Your Self-Driving Car

Most people, when they think about the shiny self-driving cars of the (near?) future don’t think about Venezuelans, living in crisis conditions after their economy collapsed, sitting at laptops and outlining pictures of trees and bikes so that the robotic vehicles don’t crash.

That was the situation in 2018, according to Florian A. Schmidt, a crowdwork expert and professor of design at HTW Dresden. “You have these formerly middle-class, well-educated, well-connected people with good internet infrastructure who suddenly dropped into poverty,” says Schmidt, who wrote a paper on this new labor market for the Hans Böckler Foundation, a research arm of the German trade union federation. (The paper was released in English this week.)

Desperate for work, Venezuelans came across a new group of online crowdworking platforms. These companies—including Mighty AI, Playment, Hive, and Scale—cater to the autonomous-vehicle industry and could be a new battleground in the debate over whether gig workers should be considered employees.

Hundreds of thousands of workers from Venezuela signed up to work for these companies last year, in some cases making up as much as 75% of a firm’s workforce. Even today, 75% of search traffic to Mighty AI comes from a site advertising jobs in Venezuela. The companies don’t pay more for data labeling than a platform like Amazon Mechanical Turk, but they do offer a steadier source of income, providing a measure of security for those in a country where inflation recently hit 10 million percent. (Mighty AI did not respond to a request for comment.)

This kind of human object recognition for computers was presaged in Harry Harrison's 1956 short story The Velvet Glove:

"... whenever a robot finds something it can't identify straight off... it puts whatever it is in the hopper outside your window. You give it a good look, check the list for the proper category if you're not sure, then press the right button and in she goes."

An hour passed before he had his first identification to make. A robot stopped in mid-dump, ground its gears a moment, and then dropped a dead cat into Carl's hopper... Something heavy had dropped on the cat, reducing the lower part of its body to paper-thinness.

Castings... Cast Iron... Cats... There was the bin number. Nine.

Consider also the Ava learning software from The Calcutta Chromosome, a 1995 novel by Amitav Ghosh. In the story, Ava is an artificial intelligence program that has human help in identifying objects:

Antar had met children who were like that: Why? What? When? Where? How? But children asked because they were curious; with these AVA/Iie systems it was something else - something that he could only think of as a simulated urge for self-improvement. ..

She wouldn't stop until Antar had told her everything he knew about whatever it was that she was playing with on her screen…

TechnologyReview.

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