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Google Assistant, an artificially intelligent agent much like Siri or Alexa can simplify our lives in many different ways from setting reminders to controlling smart home devices and more. Google estimated that its Assistant is installed on as many as one billion devices.
A recent reveal by The Guardian’s Julia Wong revealed that Google’s prized AI Assistant is powered by several underpaid and overworked contract workers.
“It’s smoke and mirrors if anything. Artificial intelligence is not that artificial; it’s human beings that are doing the work,” said a current Google employee who chose to remain anonymous.
Silicon Valley has gone great lengths to develop and understand human speech. Several systems have been installed in place just to feed massive reams of data into machine learning systems. In order to feed such systems, Pygmalion, a team that creates linguistic data sets for the Google Assistant was created in 2014. Google supposedly has only a handful of well-paid, permanent employees working in this project. The rest is made up of temporary workers hired through staffing firms such as Adecco.
“Imagine going from producing Ph.D. level research and pushing forward the state of knowledge in the world to going to an annotation type job, where all you’re doing all day is annotating data; it’s very click, click, click. Everyone was trying to prove themselves because everyone was trying to work for Google. The competitive edge that happened among colleagues as TVCs was severe,” says a former Pygmalion project manager.
Several employees, both current and formal ones have revealed that Google is heavily reliant on several thousand temporary workers such as subcontractors and vendors for producing a huge chunk of the company’s work. For instance, all the work pertaining to the collection of location data for Google Earth, scanning millions of books for Google Books or even YouTube’s moderators are outsourced to these temporary workers.
This clearly indicates that there is a clear hierarchy between employees working at Google. One kind is the well-compensated, full-time employees whereas the other kind is temporary, underpaid, overworked subcontractors. A Google employee said that the 100,000 or more temporary employees working for Google resemble a “white-collar sweatshop”.
It is also reported that the high-pressure work done for Google’s machine learning systems has created a culture that promotes working overtime without compensation. While the managers keep declaring that overtime wouldn’t be encouraged, they, however, are assigning an unreasonable amount of work to the subcontractors.
“People did [unpaid overtime] because they were dangled the opportunity of becoming a full-time employee, which is against company policy. There’s a particular leveraging of people’s desire to become full time,” said an associate linguist.