Last week in London at the Trust Conference, a human rights-focused event organized by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and sponsored by Uber, social entrepreneur Chris Mikkelsen revealed his bold idea: uniting the forces of philanthropy and capitalism, his non-profit Refunite would connect refugees in Uganda with tech companies who need people to train their algorithms by annotating pictures and filling out CAPTCHAs. The refugees get paid and the AI in question gets smarter, at a low cost. In Silicon Valley, that’s what they call a win-win. In the real world, it’s cheap labor that paves the way for the cheapest labor of all: algorithms that take the place of workers.
Mikkelsen’s proposal is consistent with the problem-solving methods purveyed by those in what can be broadly described as the “ideas industry.” In his book Winners Take All, Anand Giridharadas refers to this network of CEOs, thought leaders, and, above all, rich people, as denizens of “MarketWorld.” In MarketWorld, problems and solutions are evaluated through the lens of capitalism: problems are solved by corporations, foundations created by corporations, or partnerships between NGOs and corporations and their foundations, rather than governmental institutions. Why bother waiting for the slow government-gears to turn when you can move fast and break things?
Mikkelsen and his brother founded Refunite in 2008 to help refugees reunite with lost family members. With just a cell phone, people who had been separated from their family were able to access the Refunite platform, where they could make a profile and search through the database of users. According to Refunite’s website, the app is now free and available for use in 17 countries and has helped reconnect more than 40,000 families. That’s genuinely good.
But the potential impact of Refunite’s new employment initiative — 5,000 people in Uganda are now in the pilot program, but Refunite hopes to eventually scale to tens of thousands, even millions of people — are less clear. Mikkelsen told an audience at the Trust Conference that people in the pilot program are currently earning three to four dollars a day doing the algorithmic training work, up to three times more than what they were previously taking home. Mikkelsen also said that the work will help people build “digital skills,” a very euphemistic way to describe menial labor done via cellphone.
The supply, demand, potential wealth that could result from Mikkelsen’s ideas are the same reasons we should be wary of such an intervention. At the Trust Conference, Mikkelsen repeatedly said that algorithm training is “a multibillion dollar industry,” where the key ingredient is access to human-processed data. But the people who do the work will see the smallest fraction of the profits.
I’m sure many of the people who receive this opportunity will be grateful for it, and it seems like the extra income may be genuinely helpful for these communities. But for businesses looking to cut costs, Mikkelsen’s talk didn’t sound like a plea for humanitarian aid; it sounded like a tip-off on an untapped cheap labor force.
That’s not to say that Mikkelsen is a robber-baron in disguise; this is just the logic of MarketWorld, which, according to Giridharadas, evangelizes a “do well by doing good” approach to business. By packaging philanthropy with business sense, companies can claim a moral high ground without really giving much up. (The previous day at the Trust Conference, Apple was awarded the "Stop Slavery Award" for making information about its supply chain available to outside scrutiny and taking steps to curtail abusive labor practices.)
The advent of Mechanical Turk-but-for-refugees could lead to a new swath of people subject to the whims of an increasingly monopolistic tech industry. You know who sounds like a perfect fit for Refunite’s new program? Amazon, a company in the business of desperation that excels at wringing every drop of value out of vulnerable populations. And they have plenty of algorithms that need training. Mikkelsen specifically cited computer vision as a lucrative space; Amazon employed this technology to create AmazonGo, the cashier-less store that utilizes cameras and algorithms to identify who is buying what, creating a “frictionless” shopping experience. People who need jobs get in the way, and highly capable algorithms remove obstacles.
Addressing the tech companies at the conference, Mikkelsen made his final pitch. “We’re not asking for charity, we are asking for opportunity,” he said. Whose opportunity?