A Brief History of Automatons That Were Actually People

Article by Brian Contreras: “If you’ve ever asked a chatbot a question and received nonsensical gibberish in reply, you already know that “artificial intelligence” isn’t always very intelligent.

And sometimes it isn’t all that artificial either. That’s one of the lessons from Amazon’s recent decision to dial back its much-ballyhooed “Just Walk Out” shopping technology, a seemingly science-fiction-esque software that actually functioned, in no small part, thanks to behind-the-scenes human labor.

This phenomenon is nicknamed “fauxtomation” because it “hides the human work and also falsely inflates the value of the ‘automated’ solution,” says Irina Raicu, director of the Internet Ethics program at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Take Just Walk Out: It promises a seamless retail experience in which customers at Amazon Fresh groceries or third-party stores can grab items from the shelf, get billed automatically and leave without ever needing to check out. But Amazon at one point had more than 1,000 workers in India who trained the Just Walk Out AI model—and manually reviewed some of its sales—according to an article published last year on the Information, a technology business website.

An anonymous source who’d worked on the Just Walk Out technology told the outlet that as many as 700 human reviews were needed for every 1,000 customer transactions. Amazon has disputed the Information’s characterization of its process. A company representative told Scientific American that while Amazon “can’t disclose numbers,” Just Walk Out has “far fewer” workers annotating shopping data than has been reported. In an April 17 blog post, Dilip Kumar, vice president of Amazon Web Services applications, wrote that “this is no different than any other AI system that places a high value on accuracy, where human reviewers are common.”…(More)”

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