Finnish Startup Turns to Cheap Prison Labor to Train Its AI

Vainu has partners with Finnish prisons to have prisoners prepare the data necessary to train its AI.

A new AI start-up in Finland has come up with a plan to reduce the labor costs of training its new artificial intelligence: use prison labor.

Tech Turns to Prison Labor

A Finnish AI start-up has spent the past several months using prison labor to train its artificial intelligence, according to a report last month in The Verge.

Vainu, an AI start-up built around the premise of finding new ways to connect contractors with the companies that wish to partner with them, uses an artificial intelligence to process hundreds of thousands of business related articles to identify and classify contractors and companies according to their industry.

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In order to prepare the data, someone needs to read through the articles and determine which industry an article is related to so the AI can tag any companies mentioned appropriately. For English-language articles, this is as simple as setting up an Amazon Mechanical Turk account and farming out the work to low paid workers online.

The problem for Vainu is that for articles in the Finnish language, a specific skill is harder to come-by online. The company reportedly has one trainee who was do this work, but one trainee isn’t able to process all the articles the company needs.

That was when Tuomas Rasila, co-founder of Vainu, hit upon an idea as old as civilization itself: use prisoners to perform the menial labor.

Finland's Criminal Sanction Agency

Rasila was “inspired” by the fact that Finland’s Criminal Sanctions Agency (CSA) operates out of the same building as Vainu’s headquarters.

CSA is responsible for all Finnish prisons and Vainu has contracted with CSA to pay the agency for each task the prisoner performs. They will reportedly pay about the same rate as they were paying Mechanical Turk, but it will be up to CSA to allot the work to individual prisoners.

Prison labor is definitely not a new concept, but using prisoners to perform work directly for start-ups is an unfortunate Rubicon to cross for the tech industry. Vainu and CSA, for their part, promote the idea as a kind of prison reform that will teach prisons some form of valuable job skill they could use on the outside.

According to CSA, “the Criminal Sanctions Agency is highly interested in pursuing even broader cooperation with companies. If prisoners can directly enter working life after release from prison, the risk of committing crime will be substantially smaller.”

While there is certainly merit to teaching prisoners new skills and encouraging gainful employment, the money will be collected by CSA and then distributed to the prisoners, and there’s nothing that says the prisoner must receive the full amount. 

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As The Verge points out, one study has shown that the median wage for Mechanical Turk workers was only about $2 an hour. That in and of itself is exploitative, and the prisoners in this program stand to receive even less.

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Even that could be acceptable if the actual job meant something, but since all the prisoners need to do is read the articles and identify the industry involved, the opportunity to learn new skills is virtually nil. Vainu isn’t teaching these prisoners how to code a neural network, it's paying them a pittance to read business articles. 

The content of the articles isn’t sufficient to provide the kind of business education that could be useful either: these prisoners aren’t going to become entrepreneurs or stock traders as a result of this program.

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Since all prisoners need to have a certain level of reading comprehension to perform the work anyway, and the utility for this kind of to build up job skills on its own is rather limited. 

If a prisoner can’t read, they can’t do this work in the first place. If they can do this work, they’ve already learned how to read and reading a bunch of business articles isn’t going to radically improve their job prospects. As for gains in their general literacy, they'd be better off reading Dostoevsky.

And let’s be honest, putting down that you’re literate on a job resume after you got out of jail isn’t exactly a golden ticket to a better life. There are programs out there that teach prisoners very useful tech skills, such as how to code websites, that would be infinitely more valuable to prisoners than having them read business articles all day. 

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The arrangement, however, appears to have worked out well for Vainu. They’re happy enough with the results that their looking to expand their program into other countries.

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