The Humans Working Behind the AI Curtain

Innovation and Economic Growth, Media and Content, Internet, Networks, the Internet, and Cloud Computing and Artificial Intelligence

Article Snapshot


Mary L. Gray and Siddharth Suri


Harvard Business Review, January 9, 2017


Many online tasks are performed partly by artificial intelligence (AI) and partly by humans. Workers are hired on a temporary, “on demand” basis by firms such as Microsoft and Facebook to train algorithms or to assess questionable content.

Policy Relevance

Firms fail to inform consumers that AI systems need the support of human workers. Policymakers should require transparency and accountability for the hiring of these temporary workers.

Main Points

  • As AI develops, temporary labor markets are rapidly created and destroyed to serve new types of tasks that humans are needed to perform.
  • AI systems used to generate search results, produce news feeds, and adjudicated disputes require human input and judgment to moderate and assess content.
  • The human workers that support AI systems are typically paid a low flat rate, working through temp agencies or as independent contractors; many of these workers live outside the United States.
  • These human workers should be valued, as they keep the Internet from becoming a swamp of spam.
  • Firms that hire part-time contract workers often use platforms such as Crowdflower, Amazon Mechanical Turk, or Clickworker.
  • Tech companies should be required to inform consumers when human labor is required to support AI systems, as a form of truth in advertising.
  • Companies are accountable for labor practices used to produce food, clothes, and computers, and should also be accountable for and to workers shaping digital content.


Get The Article

Find the full article online

Search for Full Article