Two OpenAI contractors spoke to NBC News about their work training the system behind ChatGPT.
May 6, 2023, By David Ingram
Alexej Savreux, a 34-year-old in Kansas City, says he's done all kinds of work over the years. He's made fast-food sandwiches. He's been a custodian and a junk-hauler. And he's done technical sound work for live theater.
These days, though, his work is less hands-on: He's an artificial intelligence trainer.
Savreux is part of a hidden army of contract workers who have been doing the behind-the-scenes labor of teaching AI systems how to analyze data so they can generate the kinds of text and images that have wowed the people using newly popular products like ChatGPT. To improve the accuracy of AI, he has labeled photos and made predictions about what text the apps should generate next.
The pay: $15 an hour and up, with no benefits.
Out of the limelight, Savreux and other contractors have spent countless hours in the past few years teaching OpenAI's systems to give better responses in ChatGPT. Their feedback fills an urgent and endless need for the company and its AI competitors: providing streams of sentences, labels and other information that serve as training data.
"We are grunt workers, but there would be no AI language systems without it," said Savreux, who's done work for tech startups including OpenAI, the San Francisco company that released ChatGPT in November and set off a wave of hype around generative AI.
"You can design all the neural networks you want, you can get all the researchers involved you want, but without labelers, you have no ChatGPT. You have nothing," Savreux said.
It's not a job that will give Savreux fame or riches, but it's an essential and often overlooked one in the field of AI, where the seeming magic of a new technological frontier can overshadow the labor of contract workers.
"A lot of the discourse around AI is very congratulatory," said Sonam Jindal, the program lead for AI, labor and the economy at the Partnership on AI, a nonprofit based in San Francisco that promotes research and education around artificial intelligence.
"But we're missing a big part of the story: that this is still hugely reliant on a large human workforce," she said.
The tech industry has for decades relied on the labor of thousands of lower-skilled, lower-paid workers to build its computer empires: from punch-card operators in the 1950s to more recent Google contractors who've complained about second-class status, including yellow badges that set them apart from full-time employees. Online gig work through sites like Amazon Mechanical Turk grew even more popular early in the pandemic.
Now, the burgeoning AI industry is following a similar playbook.
The work is defined by its unsteady, on-demand nature, with people employed by written contracts either directly by a company or through a third-party vendor that specializes in temp work or outsourcing. Benefits such as health insurance are rare or nonexistent — which translates to lower costs for tech companies — and the work is usually anonymous, with all the credit going to tech startup executives and researchers.
The Partnership on AI warned in a 2021 report that a spike in demand was coming for what it called "data enrichment work." It recommended that the industry commit to fair compensation and other improved practices, and last year it published voluntary guidelines for companies to follow.
DeepMind, an AI subsidiary of Google, is so far the only tech company to publicly commit to those guidelines.
"A lot of people have recognized that this is important to do. The challenge now is to get companies to do it," Jindal said.
"This is a new job that's being created by AI," she added. "We have the potential for this to be a high-quality job and for workers who are doing this work to be respected and valued for their contributions to enabling this advancement."
A spike in demand has arrived, and some AI contract workers are asking for more. In Nairobi, Kenya, more than 150 people who've worked on AI for Facebook, TikTok and ChatGPT voted Monday to form a union, citing low pay and the mental toll of the work, Time magazine reported. Facebook and TikTok did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the vote. OpenAI declined to comment.
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