A Glimpse into the Ghost Workforce that Powers the Web

By TAP Staff Blogger

Posted on April 26, 2019


“Beyond some basic decisions, today’s artificial intelligence can’t function without humans in the loop.”
  -  Mary Gray and Siddharth Suri, from their book, Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass


Smartphone apps, web sites, and artificial intelligence (AI) systems rely on the judgment of human laborers, working behind the scenes, to perform tasks such as flagging X-rated content, proofreading, and training algorithms to identify specific objects. Uber, for example, relies on humans to ensure that the selfies that Uber drivers use when checking in to work match their ID photos. And while Facebook, Twitter, and other online services use AI to filter out some offensive content, human workers must classify hard-to-evaluate materials.


Mary Gray and Siddharth Suri’s new book, Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass, examines the invisible human workforce that powers the web. The book explores the lives of people who are paid to train artificial intelligence and, increasingly, serve as “humans in the loop” delivering on-demand information services.


From Ghost Work’s Introduction:


Whether it’s delivering a relevant newsfeed or carrying out a complicated texted-in pizza order, when the artificial intelligence (AI) trips up or can’t finish the job, thousands of businesses call on people to quietly complete the project. This new digital assembly line aggregates the collective input of distributed workers, ships pieces of projects rather than products, and operates across a host of economic sectors at all times of the day and night. In fact, the rise of this shadow workforce is part of a larger, more profound reorganization of employment itself. This yet-to-be-classified form of employment done on demand is neither inherently good nor bad. But left without definition and veiled from consumers who benefit from it, these jobs can easily slip into ghost work.


The workers that perform behind-the-scene tasks find assignments using on-demand labor platforms such as Mechanical Turk, LeadGenius, Amara, and Clickworker. According to Ghost Work, there are between 200,000 and 500,000 registered Mechanical Turk workers; and, 2000 to 5000 are usually working at any given moment. Work is paid by the piece and equates to low wages, and it does not offer benefits. However, these on-demand work platforms do provide an opportunity for many disadvantaged workers to earn income.


Joan – One of Many Ghost Workers


Joan works from the Houston home she shares with her 81-year-old mother. In 2012, Joan moved in to care for her mother after a knee surgery left her mom too frail to live on her own. A year later, Joan started picking up work online through MTurk  —  short for “Amazon Mechanical Turk,” a sprawling marketplace owned and operated by tech giant Amazon.com. Joan makes some of her best money doing “dollars for dick pics.” That’s how she describes labeling pictures flagged as “offensive” by social media users on platforms like Twitter and Match.com.


Companies can’t automatically process every piece of content users flag for review, so some of the harder-to-evaluate materials are routed to workers like Joan. On the surface, her task seems simple: click on pictures and assess their content. Is that an X-rated penis selfie that should be removed, or some innocuous G-rated body part? She is paid for each task she completes and decides when she walks away from her computer. Joan, with years of practice, now knows how to piece together an average ten-hour day that will bring in roughly $40 worth of such tasks.


There are currently no labor laws to govern this type of work. The authors show that over time, on-demand labor will displace full-time employment. And they outline how ghost workers, employers, and society at large can ensure that this new kind of work creates opportunity—rather than misery—for those who do it.


Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass will go on sale May 7th. Read more: articles related to the book, TAP’s one-page summary of Ghost Work.


A few upcoming events include:


About the Authors


Mary L. Gray is a Fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society and a Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research. She maintains a faculty position in the School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering with affiliations in Anthropology, Gender Studies, and the Media School, at Indiana University. She studies how technology access, material conditions, and everyday uses of tech transform people’s lives. Professor Gray is a leading expert in the emerging field of AI and ethics, particularly research methods at the intersections of computer and social sciences.


Siddharth Suri is a Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research – AI. He is a computational social scientist whose work lies at the intersection of computer science, behavioral economics, crowdsourcing and the gig economy. His early work analyzed the relationship between network topology and human behavior. Since then he became one of the leaders in designing, building, and conducting “virtual lab” experiments using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. He used this methodology to study cooperation, honesty, group problem solving, and display advertising. Most recently, he has been studying the gig workers who power many modern apps, websites, and AI systems.