Mary L. Gray

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More than two centuries before Deep Blue deep-sixed humanity by administering both a whooping and the willies to Garry Kasparov, that Russian John Henry, the Mechanical Turk purported to be a chess-playing automaton nonpareil. It was, of course, a fake, a contraption that hid within its case a genius-level human champion that controlled its every move. Such chicanery isn’t unusual for technologies nowhere near fruition, but the truth is even ones oh-so-close to the finish line often need the aid of a hidden hand.

In “The Humans Working Behind The Curtain,” a smart Harvard Business Review piece by Mary L. Gray and Siddharth Suri, the authors explain how the “paradox of automation’s last mile” manifests itself even in today’s highly algorithmic world, an arrangement by which people are hired to quietly complete a task AI can’t, and one which is unlikely to be undone by further progress. Unfortunately, most of the stealth work for humans created in this way is piecemeal, lower-paid and prone to the rapid churn of disruption.

An excerpt:

Cut to Bangalore, India, and meet Kala, a middle-aged mother of two sitting in front of her computer in the makeshift home office that she shares with her husband. Our team at Microsoft Research met Kala three months into studying the lives of people picking up temporary “on-demand” contract jobs via the web, the equivalent of piecework online. Her teenage sons do their homework in the adjoining room. She describes calling them into the room, pointing at her screen and asking: “Is this a bad word in English?” This is what the back end of AI looks like in 2016. Kala spends hours every week reviewing and labeling examples of questionable content. Sometimes she’s helping tech companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft train the algorithms that will curate online content. Other times, she makes tough, quick decisions about what user-generated materials to take down or leave in place when companies receive customer complaints and flags about something they read or see online.

Whether it is Facebook’s trending topics; Amazon’s delivery of Prime orders via Alexa; or the many instant responses of bots we now receive in response to consumer activity or complaint, tasks advertised as AI-driven involve humans, working at computer screens, paid to respond to queries and requests sent to them through application programming interfaces (APIs) of crowdwork systems. The truth is, AI is as “fully-automated” as the Great and Powerful Oz was in that famous scene from the classic film, where Dorothy and friends realize that the great wizard is simply a man manically pulling levers from behind a curtain. This blend of AI and humans, who follow through when the AI falls short, isn’t going away anytime soon. Indeed, the creation of human tasks in the wake of technological advancement has been a part of automation’s history since the invention of the machine lathe.

We call this ever-moving frontier of AI’s development, the paradox of automation’s last mile: as AI makes progress, it also results in the rapid creation and destruction of temporary labor markets for new types of humans-in-the-loop tasks.•

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