I’m excited to be part of the organizing team for an upcoming conference entitled “Unboxing AI” and aiming to open – at least to an extent – the black box. What are the material conditions of AI production? Who are the multitudes of precarious workers who contribute to it in the shadow, by generating data and checking algorithmic outputs? What are the geographical areas and the social scope of the work that produces today’s intelligent technologies? These are some of the questions we aim to explore.
The first two days of the conference (November 5 and 6, 3pm – 7pm CET) will bring together highly regarded international specialists from a wide variety of disciplines (sociology, law, economics, but also the arts and humanities…). On the third day (November 7, also 3 pm – 7 pm CET), there will be a doctoral colloquium with a selection of very promising work by young researchers.
The conference was initially planned to take place in Milan in March 2020, and had to be postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As the health situation is still critical, we have opted for an online-only version. At least, this format is cheap – no need to travel to attend – and we can welcome a more geographically diverse range of participants. Indeed the afternoon-only schedule is meant to enable colleagues from North and South America to attend.
Participation is free of charge but prior registration is required. You will find the programme as well as registration forms here (please note that there is a separate form for each of the three dates of the conference).
At an internal meeting of the IDHES lab in Gif-sur-Yvette, and then at an event at the University of Bologna, I have had the pleasure of presenting recent research on how the current health crisis reveals a new dimension of digital platforms – their tendency, wherever possible, to shift risk from clients to workers, within its ecosystem. The paper, co-authored with Antonio A. Casilli, is now under submission for a journal.
Here is an abstract:
As the recessionary effects of the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic become manifest, the paper discusses their effects on digital platforms and the workers in their eco-systems. Against the possibility that platform labor may be a buffer against crisis-induced layoffs, our analysis of the risks associated to it suggests that it may eventually increase precarity, without necessarily mitigating health risks for workers. Our argument is based on a comparison of the three main categories of platform labor – “on-demand labor” (gigs such as delivery and transportation), “online labor” (tasks performed by freelancers and micro-workers) and “social media labor” (like content generation and moderation) – in terms of the health and economic risks involved in coronavirus times. We show that platform managers have deployed varying strategies to transfer risk from themselves and their clients onto workers, exploiting and deepening the existing power imbalance between them. Success in achieving this has enabled them to secure their bottom line even at the expense of working conditions. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought to light how digital platforms apply a management style that revolves around transferring the burden of risk to their own workforce.
With Antonio A. Casilli, I will be presenting a paper tomorrow at the Crowdworking Symposium organized by the University of Paderborn, Germany. Unfortunately, we will participate only online because of the health situation.
Our mini-paper (3 pages), entitled ‘Portraits of micro-workers: The real people behind AI in France’, is available here.
On 18 September 2020, I present my research on the platform economy and its impact on labour in Covid-19 times at Nantes Digital Week, as part of a special event organized by CGT, a Union.
The mobility restrictions that accompanied the pandemic encouraged use of digital tools to socialize, study and work, suggesting that automation is gaining ground and that technology enables contactless – hence safe – interactions in much of our social life. Yet behind apparent automation, precarious and unprotected human labour is hidden. Workers recruited through digital platforms to make these solutions work, are in fact disproportionately exposed to risks. I illustrate these ideas in three main cases: food delivery workers, that enabled the restaurant industry to stand the crisis even during lockdown; commercial content moderators that are to return to office sooner than others, to protect our safety online; and AI micro-workers who trained tools whose sales have gone up during stay-at-home rules, such as voice assistants, and helped the creation of datasets for much-needed health applications.
Next Thursday, 17 September, I have been invited to give a talk as part of the cycle of seminars organized by the quantitative sociology research group at CREST-ENSAE, Palaiseau (Paris area). Although the health situation is still bleak, I am glad to return to almost-normal functioning by giving an in-person talk. Hopefully there won’t be any new lockdown before that.
I will present an in-progress paper provisionally entitled:
«Disembedded or deeply embedded?A multi-level network analysis of the online platform economy»
In this paper, I extend the economic-sociological concept of embeddedness to encompass not only social networks of, for example, friendship or kinship ties, but also economic networks of ownership and control relationships. Applying these ideas to the case of digital platform labour pinpoints two possible scenarios. When platforms take the role of market intermediaries, economic ties are thin and workers are left to their own devices, in a form of ‘disembeddedness’. When platforms partake in intricate inter-firm outsourcing structures, economic ties envelop workers in a ‘deep embeddedness’ which involves both stronger constraints and higher rewards. With this added dimension, the notion of embeddedness becomes a compelling tool to describe the social structures that frame economic action, including the power imbalances that characterize digital labour in the global economy.
I have an exciting opportunity for a brilliant master’s degree holder willing to do a PhD in economic sociology. The topic of the thesis is “The division of data labour: How multi-level micro-work networks elucidate the social and economic dimensions of artificial intelligence”. The studentship is generously funded by CNRS.
The paper sheds light on the role of digital platform labour in the development of today’s artificial intelligence, predicated on data-intensive machine learning algorithms. We uncover the specific ways in which outsourcing of data tasks to myriad ‘micro-workers’, recruited and managed through specialized platforms, powers virtual assistants, self-driving vehicles and connected objects. Using qualitative data from multiple sources, we show that micro-work performs a variety of functions, between three poles that we label, respectively, ‘artificial intelligence preparation’, ‘artificial intelligence verification’ and ‘artificial intelligence impersonation’. Because of the wide scope of application of micro-work, it is a structural component of contemporary artificial intelligence production processes – not an ephemeral form of support that may vanish once the technology reaches maturity stage. Through the lens of micro-work, we prefigure the policy implications of a future in which data technologies do not replace human workforce but imply its marginalization and precariousness.
The paper reports results of the 2017-18 DiPLab project, and is available here in open access.