‘We are grunt workers’: The $15 an hour laborers behind the AI revolution

Despite the acute and never-ending need, these workers and other professionals in the field are paid very little, with no benefits.
Baba Tamim
Representational image: AI-workers earning menial wages.
Representational image: AI-workers earning menial wages.


A sizable, unseen army of contract employees is needed in the rapidly developing field of artificial intelligence (AI) to educate AI systems on evaluating data and producing text and visuals. 

Despite the acute and never-ending need, these workers and other professionals in the field are paid very little, starting at $15 an hour with no benefits, according to a report by NBC News on Saturday. 

"We are grunt workers, but there would be no AI language systems without it," Alexej Savreux, who has worked with startups like OpenAI, the creators of AI-sensation ChatGPT, told NBC.

"You can design all the neural networks you want, [and] you can get all the researchers involved you want, but without labelers, you have no ChatGPT. You have nothing," Savreux expressed. 

The 34-year-old Kansas City resident is a member of the army of AI trainers who have classified pictures and anticipated what text applications would produce next to increase AI's accuracy. 

Their input and data on ChatGPT and other AI systems enabled the creation of these products, but their efforts are often overlooked.

"A lot of the discourse around AI is very congratulatory," said Sonam Jindal, the program lead for AI, labor, and the economy at the Partnership on AI, a nonprofit based in San Francisco

"But we're missing a big part of the story: that this is still hugely reliant on a large human workforce," added Jindal, who works at the NGO that promotes research and education around artificial intelligence. 

Fair compensation for AI workers

In a recent report, the Partnership on AI spoke of an anticipated rise in demand for AI data enrichment work. 

The report issued voluntary criteria for businesses to abide by and advised the industry to commit to fair compensation and other improved practices. The only tech company to publicly commit to these rules is DeepMind, a Google AI subsidiary.

Even though AI contractors make significant contributions, they are subjected to poor pay and other difficult working conditions, including the physical and emotional strain of the job. 

Over 150 AI contractors from Facebook, TikTok, and ChatGPT in Nairobi, Kenya, voted on Monday to organize a union to solve these problems.

The tech sector has made this kind of job the standard, relying on the labor of less educated, lower-paid people to create its computer oligarchies. 

The Partnership on AI is urging the industry to treat these people fairly and respectfully in exchange for their contributions to allowing AI developments, notwithstanding the possibility that this could be high-quality employment.

According to a January report from the online news source Semafor, OpenAI has employed roughly 1,000 remote workers in regions like Eastern Europe and Latin America to classify data or educate corporate software on computer engineering jobs. 

OpenAI is still a small business with only 375 workers as of January, CEO Sam Altman claimed on Twitter. 

However, this figure does not include contractors and does not accurately represent the company's entire scope or its aspirations.