With Big Tech in a race to develop self-driving cars, companies are turning to cheap labor in Kenya to program their self-driving AI. One such worker in Kenya is a 26-year-old single mother named Brenda who lives in Africa's largest slum known as Kibera. It is one of the toughest places in the world with hundreds of thousands of people in a space the size of London's Hyde Park.
Despite the harsh environment, Brenda boards a bus every day to reach the east side of Nairobi where she and over 1,000 other people work on the more monotonous side of programming artificial intelligence. Brenda creates training data during her eight-hour shifts each day which entails loading up an image and using the mouse to trace around just about everything in the scene.
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The task is strenuous and involves tracing around everything from people to cars, road signs, lane markings, and even the sky so that it can be "recognized" by the AI when it encounters the objects in the real world. The more data the AI has to train from, the smarter it will become.
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Brenda describes a cramped working environment where she has to sit very close to her colleagues and even closer to her monitor. All of their work will be checked down to the pixel to make sure it is tagged correctly if it does not pass the supervisor's inspection she must start from scratch.
For the workers who earn the best times and highest quality work, they get to have their names on several TV screens throughout the office. A handful of few lucky workers will get even get the best reward of all, a shopping voucher. "You get to do something unique," Brenda told BBC reporter Dave Lee. "With my work that I'm doing, I believe I'm working for something that is going to help someone in the future."
The work Brenda does is for a tech company located in San Francisco called Samasource which is contracted by Google, Microsoft, Salesforce, Yahoo and the likes. Most of these companies won't discuss the details of the work they contract out to Samasource, partly because it involves future projects, but also because it could be seen as unethical when one considers that Samasource employees are earning around $9 for a full day's work.
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If you look out the windows of the office, you would realize you are in a slum, but from the inside, the walls are corrugated iron with row after row of computer stations. Samasource claims that just over half of their workforce is made up of women. The company offers women 90-days of maternity leave and lactation room.
Hellen Savala, who runs human resources said, "Like a lot of people say if you have a man in the workplace, he'll support his family. But if you have a woman in the workplace, she'll support her family and the extended family. So you'll have a lot more impact." Samasource's chief executive Leila Janah boasts of company's mostly-female management team.
"It's extremely unusual in Silicon Valley more broadly, but especially within artificial intelligence. We just think of it as normal. It's a competitive advantage," Janah said. Is it a competitive advantage or is it that women are more inclined to do computer work for $9 a day then men are?
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Janah says the reason why Google and the other tech giants choose Samasource is because of the company's record for accuracy and security. Could it also be because Samasource is undercutting American workers and taking advantage of people who are desperate enough to work for $9 a day in 2018?
Samasource claims that the average wage of workers they target in Kenya is around $2 a day which makes $9 a day sound great but it is still a complete sham when you consider how many billions these tech companies are worth. Janah argued that Samasource doesn't pay more because it would negatively impact the cost of housing, food, and the economy in general in Kenya.
"Yes, it's cost-effective," Janah said. "But one thing that's critical in our line of work is to not pay wages that would distort local labor markets. If we were to pay people substantially more than that, we would throw everything off. That would have a potentially negative impact on the cost of housing, the cost of food in the communities in which our workers thrive."
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One worker said that working at Samasource has changed his life because the work allowed him to move out of the slum on to bigger and better things. 25-year-old Idris Abdi said, "It has changed my… my everything. It has changed my perspective, it has exposed me to see there is hope beyond living here."
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