These Prisoners Are Training AI

Article by Morgan Meaker: “…Around the world, millions of so-called “clickworkers” train artificial intelligence models, teaching machines the difference between pedestrians and palm trees, or what combination of words describe violence or sexual abuse. Usually these workers are stationed in the global south, where wages are cheap. OpenAI, for example, uses an outsourcing firm that employs clickworkers in Kenya, Uganda, and India. That arrangement works for American companies, operating in the world’s most widely spoken language, English. But there are not a lot of people in the global south who speak Finnish.

That’s why Metroc turned to prison labor. The company gets cheap, Finnish-speaking workers, while the prison system can offer inmates employment that, it says, prepares them for the digital world of work after their release. Using prisoners to train AI creates uneasy parallels with the kind of low-paid and sometimes exploitive labor that has often existed downstream in technology. But in Finland, the project has received widespread support.

“There’s this global idea of what data labor is. And then there’s what happens in Finland, which is very different if you look at it closely,” says Tuukka Lehtiniemi, a researcher at the University of Helsinki, who has been studying data labor in Finnish prisons.

For four months, Marmalade has lived here, in Hämeenlinna prison. The building is modern, with big windows. Colorful artwork tries to enforce a sense of cheeriness on otherwise empty corridors. If it wasn’t for the heavy gray security doors blocking every entry and exit, these rooms could easily belong to a particularly soulless school or university complex.

Finland might be famous for its open prisons—where inmates can work or study in nearby towns—but this is not one of them. Instead, Hämeenlinna is the country’s highest-security institution housing exclusively female inmates. Marmalade has been sentenced to six years. Under privacy rules set by the prison, WIRED is not able to publish Marmalade’s real name, exact age, or any other information that could be used to identify her. But in a country where prisoners serving life terms can apply to be released after 12 years, six years is a heavy sentence. And like the other 100 inmates who live here, she is not allowed to leave…(More)”.

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