Child sweatshops power the AI industry

A worrying November 15 report revealed that child labor is used by major tech companies to train artificial intelligence systems. Children as young as 11 are working long hours labeling data and moderating content on crowdsourcing platforms like Toloka and Appen. These platforms connect gig workers to AI companies like GoogleAmazon, MicrosoftBoeing and others.

While the platforms require users to be 18, lax controls make it easy for children to circumvent age restrictions by using their loved ones’ IDs. Interviews with workers in Pakistan and Kenya revealed that many were joining these sites as minors. Some shared accounts with family members, taking turns tagging data after school or when parents were busy with household chores.

Researchers estimate that the data labeling industry will grow to more than $17 billion by 2030. But workers, primarily in East Africa, Venezuela, Pakistan, India and the Philippines, are not paid only a few cents per task. Teenagers are attracted by the prospect of earning a few dollars a day – exceeding the local minimum wage – but the low pay and repetitive work amount to “digital servitude”, critics say.

Children as young as 13 are exposed to disturbing content such as hate speech, violent images and pornography when they moderate platforms. Experts warn that this can cause lasting psychological damage. “It’s digital slavery,” said an 18-year-old who joined the group at age 15 in Pakistan. He continues to work grueling night shifts, earning only $100 a month.

The physical and legal distances between workers and Silicon Valley tech companies create little control over working conditions. Entire numbers remain invisible, with children filling family accounts. “Their backs would hurt from sitting for so long. So they would take a break, and then the children would take over,” one researcher explained.

Some platforms like Kolotibablo openly advertise jobs for children to solve CAPTCHAs. Experts say this data helps train AI systems, including those owned by Google. The largely unregulated industry allows child labor to remain hidden.

photo by Tara Winstead.

Radek Zielinski

Radek Zielinski is an experienced technology and financial journalist with a passion for cybersecurity and futurology.

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