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Accepted Paper:

‘We Make AI More Humane’: Labour and Expertise of Disabled Data Workers Behind AI in China  
Di Wu (MIT)

Paper short abstract:

This is an ethnographic account of disabled workers recruited by an NGO to annotate training data for smart speakers in China. Unpacking the annotation processes from the workers' perspectives, I argue that the social context of disability and disability expertise provide essential resources to AI.

Paper long abstract:

This paper examines an understudied labour force behind the production of artificial intelligence (AI) systems — people with disabilities. In recent years, people with disabilities in China have been explicitly enrolled by government programmes, corporations, and NGOs to classify and label training data for AI systems. This paper provides an ethnographic account of one of these programmes. Run by a disabled persons’ organisation, the programme is staffed with predominantly blind, low vision, and physically impaired data workers, tasked to sort data for an AI-based virtual assistant device (akin to Alexa).

Centring the perspectives of disabled data annotators, this paper unpacks the processes, and the material and social contexts of labelling training data for smart speakers in China. The inherent uncertainties entailed in classifying human intentions mediated by smart speakers without sociolinguistic contexts, I argue, demand a constant workforce of experienced annotators with trained tacit knowledge, rich institutional memory, and strong coordination with the AI developers. The quality of the data is therefore closely tied to the stability of the annotation workforce. Disabled workers in China, pushed out of a wide range of job opportunities due to structural ableism, supplied such stability for the AI company. Meanwhile, by enacting non-normative practises of access and time, the workers have reshaped their work conditions, consequently improving their work performance and experience. Complicating the debate on whether digital work empowers or exploits people with disabilities, this paper calls for greater attention to how disability may in turn shape the production of AI.

Panel P17b
Addressing the Humans behind AI and Robotics
  Session 1 Monday 6 June, 2022, -