October 4, 2021

Supply chains

Do you remember the last CAPTCHA you filled in?  The one that asked you to click every square that had bicycles in?   How long did it take you? A few seconds? A minute?

Of course, you know that every time you do that you’re cleaning data for an AI project, or training an AI machine to get better at bicycle recognition.

To you, that piece of microwork was a distraction.  To others it’s a project.  A minute’s worth of work for an unknown customer with an unknown purpose, often far less innocuous than bicycles, paid for in cents.

These ‘projects’ are not even tasks, only tiny slices of a task.  Like the complex calculations performed by the Lyons Corner House ‘computers’, only without the employment contract, the shared office or the necessary equipment.  Without even knowing who or where the ‘computer’ before you is, nor the one after you, because actually you’re spread across continents and time-zones, in refugee camps, prisons and slums.

Now imagine trying to build any kind of working life around ‘projects’ like these.

If you thought bodged-up fire-trap factories in Bangladesh was bad, welcome to the supply chain for the software behind driverless cars, voice-assistants, smart bikes and fitness-trackers.  The supply chain of the future.  Unless we’re careful.

I recommend this book.  It’s not comfortable reading, but I think it is essential.