Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass

Innovation and Economic Growth and Artificial Intelligence

Article Snapshot


Mary L. Gray and Siddharth Suri


Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019


Artificial intelligence (AI) systems often rely on human workers to classify content. The workers find tasks using on-demand labor platforms like Mechanical Turk, receiving low wages and no benefits; however, on-demand work platforms enable many disadvantaged workers to earn income.

Policy Relevance

Over time, on-demand labor will displace full-time employment. Policymakers and firms should ensure that on-demand workers are treated humanely.

Main Points

  • Smartphone apps, web sites, and AI systems rely on the judgment of human laborers, “ghost workers” invisible to consumers.
    • Uber relies on humans to ensure that the selfies that Uber drivers use when checking in to work match their ID photos.
    • Facebook, Twitter, and other online services use AI to filter out some offensive content, but human workers must classify hard-to-evaluate materials.
  • Workers obtain tasks from on-demand labor platforms like Mechanical Turk, LeadGenius, Amara, and Clickworker.
  • There are between 200,000 and 500,000 registered Mechanical Turk workers; 2000 to 5000 are usually working at any given moment.
    • Overseas workers are concentrated in some regions, such as the southern part of India.
    • Amazon charges 20 percent of a worker’s paycheck as a fee for operating the platform.
    • 75 percent of Mechanical Turk workers have another source of income.
  • On-demand workers are a new type of worker, with no fixed connection to one firm; firms must constantly reinvent offerings to customers, and cannot meet this constant demand with a stable of full-time employees.
  • As of 2016, 8 percent of adults in the United States, about 20 million people, earn money performing on-demand tasks offline or online.
    • Online on-demand jobs did not exist before 2005.
    • By 2055, 60 percent of labor will consist of online, on-demand task work.
  • Typically, on-demand workers fit one of three profiles:
    • Most try out a few platforms, do a few tasks, and leave within a month.
    • Some participate for less than 10 hours per month, until they meet a financial goal.
    • The core workforce averages 30 hours per week, and performs the majority of the tasks.
  • On-demand workers receive low wages and no benefits, lack opportunities for advancement, and are isolated from other workers; also, workers face problems with wrongfully terminated accounts, and 30 percent report not being paid for work they have done.
  • Workers who struggle to find regular jobs due to their gender, religion, or disabilities can earn income through on-demand labor platforms; many ghost workers are stay-at-home mothers.
  • Policies that would improve the lives of on-demand workers include:
    • Support for guild-like communities, unions, and rating systems to build workers’ knowledge base and reputations, and address problems with shoddy workers.
    • On-demand platforms should offer access to software tools, so workers do not bear the costs of doing the work.
    • Public provision of improved safety nets, including health care and educational opportunities.
  • Legislation could help make firms be accountable to workers and consumers for conditions of on-demand work, just as the Fair Food program improved conditions of the lowest paid farm workers in the United States.


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