An exploration of the hidden human labor force that works with artificial intelligence to power many popular websites and apps.
As Microsoft Research senior analysts Gray and Suri note, some 20 million individuals worldwide make up an “on-demand gig economy,” working as freelancers to handle judgment-call tasks that computers do not do—from moderating content and editing product reviews to developing web pages—and executing such high-tech piece work (for apps like Uber and websites like Facebook) in isolation, amid great uncertainty, without feedback or benefits, and under no clear labor laws. Drawing on a pioneering five-year study of workers in the United States and India, the authors provide a revealing, overly detailed view of this rapidly growing world of “ghost work,” in which “faceless” labor platforms (at the behest of well-known firms) hire workers represented by numbers rather than names. The platforms organize, route, and schedule projects to individuals working from home or elsewhere. This prospect—not the takeover of work by robots—represents the “inevitable” future of jobs, argue the authors. The book includes portraits of many workers such as Karen, a 37-year-old stay-at-home mom who does captions for an on-demand platform called Amara, earning $15 per hour; and Zaffar, 26, an IT graduate who handles tasks for LeadGenius, another platform, from his home in India. Most are college graduates under age 40, and many have failed to find—or do not want—9-to-5 jobs. Some are disabled, retired, or caring for children or elderly relatives; all take on first-come, first-served assignments at their convenience. Worker experiences are mixed: Some hustle to land steady work, while others find some of the hundreds of platforms (Amazon’s MTurk, Microsoft’s UHRS, LeadGenius, and Amara are examined in detail) hard to understand. Nearly a third report being unpaid for work completed. The authors urge many reforms, including a safety net for future workers and “company-issued, shared workspace.”
A sobering book for policymakers and anyone considering on-demand gigs.