Unboxing AI conference

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).

The conference is organized as part of the initiatives of our ‘International Network on Digital Labor‘ and is co-sponsored by ISRF (Independent Social Research Foundation), the Nexa Center for Internet and Society, and Fondazione Feltrinelli.

First seminar of the year!

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»

The two types of platform labour analyzed in the paper.

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.

PhD studentship available

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.

More information and application form (both in French and in English) here: https://emploi.cnrs.fr/Offres/Doctorant/UMR8623-PAOTUB-001/Default.aspx?lang=EN

The trainer, the verifier, the imitator: Three ways in which human platform workers support artificial intelligence

New article, co-authored with Antonio A. Casilli and Marion Coville, just published in Big Data & Society!

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 three main functions of micro-work in the development of data-intensive, machine-learning based AI solutions.

The paper reports results of the 2017-18 DiPLab project, and is available here in open access.

Microwork platforms: a challenge for artificial intelligence, a challenge for employment?

With our sponsors France Stratégie and MSH Paris-Saclay, we convene an international conference on micro-work in Paris on June 13, 2019, followed by the first INDL (International Network on Digital Labor) workshop on June 14. The event will include a “meet the microworkers” panel on June 13, where workers, platform owners and client companies will take the stage. There will also be presentations of the results of national and international surveys (notably ours, DiPLab) on these emerging forms of work, and discussions with French and international academic and institutional experts.


After Uber, Deliveroo and other on-demand services, micro-work is a new form of labor mediated by digital platforms. Internet and mobile services recruit crowds to perform small, standardized and repetitive tasks on behalf of corporate clients, in return for fees ranging from few cents to few euros. These tasks generally require low skills: taking a picture in a store, recognizing and classifying images, transcribing bits of text, formatting an electronic file… Despite their apparent simplicity, these micro-tasks performed by millions of people around the world, are crucial to create the databases needed to calibrate and “train” artificial intelligence algorithms.

Internationally, Amazon Mechanical Turk is the most widely known micro-work platform. In France and in French-speaking Africa, other platforms are attracting a growing number of workers to supplement or even substitute for their primary income. How widespread is the phenomenon? How to recognize, organize and regulate this new form of work? How, finally, does it relate to traditional forms of employment?

Presentations and discussions are held in French and English, with simultaneous translation.

The programme is available here.

Le moment big data des sciences sociales: quel accès aux données du web et des médias sociaux ?

Table ronde, Sciences Po Paris, 6 décembre 2018, 18h00


Pour que la recherche en sciences sociales puisse pleinement tirer profit des grandes bases de données numériques, un verrou reste à lever : l’accès à ces données est limité, inégalement distribué, et entouré d’un flou juridique et déontologique. Nous proposons d’en discuter à l’occasion de la parution du numéro spécial de la Revue Française de Sociologie sur “Big data, sociétés et sciences sociales” (n. 59/3). Cette table ronde réunit les chercheur.e.s avec d’autres parties prenantes publiques et

Avec :

  • Garance Lefèvre, Policy senior associate, Uber
  • Roxane Silberman, Conseillère scientifique, Centre d’Accès Sécurisé aux Données (CASD)
  • Sophie Vulliet-Tavernier, Directrice des relations avec les publics et la recherche, Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés (CNIL)
  • Les auteurs du numéro spécial.

Modérateurs : Gilles Bastin (Univ. Grenoble Alpes) et Paola Tubaro (CNRS), coordinateurs du numéro spécial.

Entrée libre et gratuite, dans la limite des places disponibles: pour s’inscrire, cliquez ici.

Accès : Sciences Po, salle Goguel. Entrée par le 27 rue Saint-Guillaume, 75007 Paris (traverser le jardin et prendre l’ascenseur jusqu’au dernier étage). La table ronde est organisée par la Revue Française de Sociologie en collaboration avec les Presses de Sciences Po. Elle sera suivie d’un pot.


Back from Reshaping Work 2018

I was last week at the second Reshaping Work in the Platform Economy in Amsterdam. The interest of this small conference is tht it brings together different actors of the platform economy, from academics and students to policymakers, union leaders,  workers, and representatives of platforms to discuss.

In an overview of preliminary results of our project DiPLab, Antonio A. Casilli and I presented our reflection on how micro-work powers artificial intelligence (AI), in three main ways:

  1. Training AI
  2. Validating outcomes of AI
  3. Impersonating AI when it is cheaper or simpler that real AI


No more details for now… it will come out as a working paper very soon!


Work, Employment & Society

BSA_WES2018Just came back from the Work, Employment and Society (WES) conference 2018, that British Sociological Association (BSA) organizes every other year. Perhaps more intimate and newbie-friendly than the main BSA event, this year’s WES in Belfast was also a positive surprise in terms of its academic content. There were several sessions on the so-called ‘gig economy’ (or as one speaker put it, ‘gig economies‘), the effects of digital business models that often go under the name of ‘uberization’, and atypical forms of work.

Some lessons I am taking home:

  • A growing number of researchers are studying platform work – not just the most visible forms of it such as Uber drivers and Deliveroo couriers, but also those who are hidden at home: freelancers and to a lesser extent, micro-workers;
  • The question of how platform workers self-organize, and what can be done to improve their organization capacity, is attracting a lot of attention;
  • Efforts at establishing standards, fairness criteria and forms of social protection for atypical platform workers are gaining momentum;
  • There is a lot we can learn from research in neighboring areas: for example the distinction between employee-friendly and employer-friendly flexible work, initially developed for people in employment, is also helpful here.

What is still missing from the picture is information on the ‘long tail’ of smaller, often national rather than international, platforms, and on the workers (especially micro-workers) who use them. Besides, clients and requesters are little known – on all platforms. Estimating the size of the platform worker population remains an unresolved issue – whether at local, national or international level. A common grievance by researchers is difficulty to access crucial data from commercial platforms that use them as their private property.

Call for papers: “Recent Ethical Challenges in Social Network Analysis”

Submissions are now invited for a special section of the journal Social Networks on “Recent Ethical Challenges in Social Network Analysis” (guest-edited by myself with Antonio A. Casilli, Alessio D’Angelo, and Louise Ryan).

Research on social networks raises formidable ethical issues that often fall outside existing regulations and guidelines. State-of-the-art tools to collect, handle, and store personal data expose both researchers and participants to new risks. Political, military and corporate interests interfere with scientific priorities and practices, while legal and social ramifications of studies of personal ties and human networks come to the surface.

The proposed special section aims to critically engage with ethics in research related to social networks, specifically addressing the challenges that recent technological, scientific, legal and political transformations trigger.

Following a successful workshop on this topic that was held in December 2017 in Paris, we welcome submissions that critically engage with ethics in research related to social networks, possibly based on reflective accounts of first-hand experiences or case studies, taken as concrete illustrations of the general principles at stake, the attitudes and behaviors of stakeholders, or the legal and institutional constraints. We are particularly interested in novel, original answers to some unprecedented ethical challenges, or the need to re­interpret norms in ambiguous situations.

The full Call for Papers is available here.