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ChatGPT’s power comes from $15/hour workers.

Alexej Savreux, who lives in Kansas City and is 34 years old, has had many different jobs over the course of his work. He has tried many different jobs, like putting together fast-food meals, cleaning offices, and hauling trash. He even tried his hand at working with sound for live theater. But Savreux’s job now is less hands-on but just as important: he trains people to use artificial intelligence (AI).

Savreux is part of a secret army of contract workers who work behind the scenes to help build AI systems. Their work includes teaching AI models to look at data and come up with interesting text and images. Users of cutting-edge products like ChatGPT have been amazed by the results. Savreux does things like labeling photos and making guesses about how text will be generated in apps to improve the accuracy and usefulness of AI. Even though what they do is important, these contractors get paid as little as $15 per hour and don’t get any perks.

Savreux and his fellow contractors have spent a lot of time over the past few years teaching OpenAI’s systems how to give better answers in ChatGPT. Their input gives OpenAI and its competitors a steady flow of sentences, labels, and other training data, which is something they need right away and all the time. Savreux recognizes the important role of contract workers by saying, “We are grunt workers, but without us, there would be no AI language systems. You can make as many neural networks as you want and involve as many researchers as you want, but you won’t have ChatGPT without labellers. You don’t own anything.”

Even though Savreux’s job doesn’t bring him fame or money, it is still an important but often forgotten job in the field of AI. The magic of new technologies can sometimes make the work of contract workers seem less important than it is. Sonam Jindal, the program lead for AI, labor, and the economy at the Partnership on AI, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that works on AI research and teaching, points out this mistake: “A lot of the talk about AI is very positive. But we’re leaving out a big part of the story: that this still depends a lot on a lot of people.

In the past, the tech industry has built its computer powers with the help of thousands of low-skilled, low-paid workers. The industry has always needed contract workers, from punch-card operators in the 1950s to Google contractors who complained about being treated like second-class citizens and getting yellow badges to tell them apart from full-time workers. During the early stages of the pandemic, this trend was made even stronger by the rise of online gig work through sites like Amazon Mechanical Turk.

The AI business, which is growing quickly, is now following a similar pattern by embracing work that is unpredictable and done on demand. People get jobs by signing written contracts with companies or with third-party sellers who specialize in temporary work or outsourcing. Health insurance and other perks are rare or don’t exist at tech companies, which keeps costs down. Also, the work is often done anonymously, with most of the credit going to leaders and researchers at tech startups. In 2021, the Partnership on AI worried that there would soon be a lot more people looking for “data enrichment work” and suggested fair pay and better ways of doing things. The organization also put out voluntary guidelines for companies to follow, but only DeepMind, a division of Google that works on AI, has officially said it will do so.

Jindal says that it’s important to recognize and value the work of contract workers. “This is a new job that AI is creating,” he says. We have a chance that this will be a good job and that the people who do it will be admired and valued for their part in making this progress possible.

Some AI contract workers are asking for more pay because demand has gone up. Time magazine said that on Monday, more than 150 people in Nairobi, Kenya who have worked on AI for Facebook, TikTok, and ChatGPT decided to form a union. They did this because of low pay and the mental stress of their jobs. Facebook and TikTok didn’t answer right away when asked for their thoughts on the vote. OpenAI refused to comment.