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Google Ends Appen Contract, Exposing AI ‘Ghost Workers’

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Alphabet Workers’ Union says contract’s end will have ‘devastating impact’ on subcontractors who do the grunt work involved in training AI.

Google has ended a multimillion-dollar contract with an Australian company that helps train artificial intelligence using contractors across the globe, in a move the union said reveals the precarious employment conditions of the unseen “ghost workers” who train artificial intelligence tools.

Appen told the Australian Stock Exchange that Google notified it on Saturday that it would terminate its contract with Appen as of 19 March 2024 as part of a strategic review process.

Appen employs 1 million skilled contractors who speak more than 235 languages and are based in 170 countries. They work on labeling photographs, text, audio, and other data to improve AI systems used by large tech companies like Google. They have been referred to as “ghost workers” – the unseen human labor involved in training systems people use every day.

Appen’s employees work from home to manually review the content to train the AI, which makes it easier for the public to search or use voice recognition technologies such as Google Assistant.

The company said its revenue from Google was US$82.8m (A$125m) in the 2023 financial year.

“The news is unexpected and disappointing, particularly considering the progress made against Appen’s transformation and performance in November and December 2023,” the company said. It was focused on cost management, business turnaround, and delivery of “high-quality AI data for its customers.”

The company’s share price dropped 40% after the announcement.

A spokesperson for Google said the decision to end the contract “was made as part of our ongoing effort to evaluate and adjust many of our supplier partnerships across Alphabet to ensure our vendor operations are as efficient as possible.”

The quality rating work undertaken by Appen contractors will be transitioned to new suppliers, Google said, indicating Appen is one of dozens of contractors affected by the company’s review to find savings and efficiencies in its processes across the board – not just AI work.

However, the union representing Google employees in the United States, the Alphabet Workers’ Union, said since Google accounts for one-third of Appen’s business revenues, the move would have a “devastating impact” on subcontracted workers and was a wake-up call for tech sector employees on the impact of AI on working people.

“As subcontractors for Google, we have been a canary in the AI coalmine calling out the precarious labor conditions we face being the human workers standing between large language models and their end users,” said Toni Allen, the executive board secretary of Alphabet Workers Union-Communications Workers of America.

“This is what AI work looks like when workers have no say in the process. It is time that the world heard our voices before this situation repeats itself far and wide,” said Toni Allen, executive board secretary and member of AWU-CWA.

A spokesperson for Appen said the company’s priorities would be adjusted due to the contract termination, and more details would be provided when the full-year financial results were released on 27 February.

Wired reported in October that contractors for Appen, working to train AI systems for Google and other companies, were paid as low as 2.2 US cents for each task. One Colombia-based worker told Wired she was paid approximately $US280 a month, just below the minimum wage in Colombia of $US285.

The company reiterated previous statements that it ensured contractors are paid above the minimum wage of their operating location. Still, rates varied depending on the project, difficulties, or expertise required.

In 2021, a Black woman’s post about applying for a contractor role with the company went viral after the application asked her what her complexion was, from light to brown to black. The company at the time said the question was about gathering data from contractors to help improve the AI but removed the question from the application form.

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