Finnish prisoners employed to train AI and other stories

The Finnish start-up Metroc has entered into an agreement with the maximum security women's prison in Hämeenlinna (Finland) to employ inmates in the training of an artificial intelligence-based search engine , as reported by Wired . One of the inmates, interviewed by the Wired correspondent, defined the work as "boring and repetitive", but still better than "staying in a cell all day". It's not the first case where subjects with few employment alternatives , such as refugees, citizens of poor countries and now prisoners , are used to train an AI , often with alienating and mechanical tasks and paltry compensation .

How to train an AI that speaks Finnish

Programs based on artificial intelligence allow you to recognize images, faces , and automatically perform hundreds of functions . To train an AI, companies that operate in English use workers from the global south , who live in low-income countries. For example, OpenAI, the company that develops ChartGPT, uses an external company that hires workers in Kenya, Uganda and India . These workers have the task of explaining to a program how to distinguish a dog from a car, or how to recognize if a post on Instagram incites hatred or racism. In short, it involves spending many hours on the computer cataloging images (labellyng) or answering simple questions, in order to provide the AI ​​with a database of information.

Detained to train an AI, Finland Prison
Hämeenlinna Maximum Secure Women's Prison, Finland. Source: RISE for Wired

When AI works in the English language, there is no shortage of cheap workers . The global south is full of citizens who speak English and are willing to work for a few dollars an hour. But how do you train an AI in Finnish? In the global south there are few people who speak Finnish, in fact there are none at all . Furthermore, Finland is one of the richest countries in the world, with very high average salaries, so in this case it is difficult to find low-cost workers to train an AI.

Metroc leaders found the solution in prisons. Thanks to an agreement, the inmates of Hämeenlinna will allow the development of software in Finnish.

Inmates training artificial intelligence

Metroc is a Finnish start-up that has developed software capable of connecting supply and demand in the field of Finnish public procurement. The program analyzes a project and understands whether it already has all the resources necessary to be carried out or whether it requires professionals to be employed. The algorithm is based on artificial intelligence, and can determine whether a hospital already has an architect in charge of defining the environments or a supplier for doors and windows.

To train the AI, Metroc entered into an agreement with Hämeenlinna maximum security prison . Unlike other Finnish prisons, where inmates enjoy a certain amount of freedom during the day, in this case the inmates are never allowed to leave the prison. A Wired journalist interviewed one of the inmates involved in the program. The girl explained that the work consists of simple tasks, such as answering "yes" or "no" to questions regarding texts displayed on a computer. For example, a classic question is: "does the ad shown refer to the real estate market rather than a job offer?". Shifts last a maximum of 3 hours per day, with a salary of €1.54 per hour .

Prison management promotes the agreement with Metroc, arguing that this agreement provides an income for inmates and prepares them for the world of work that awaits them outside. However, the tasks are described by the interviewee as "rather boring and repetitive". Furthermore, the girl also claimed that she is not clear on the purpose of the work she is doing.

The reaction of public opinion

The initiative carried out by Metroc and Hämeenlinna prison has received some support from Finnish public opinion . Pia Puolakka, director of the Smart Prison project in Finland, was among the first to welcome the initiative proposed by Metroc. “The goal is to bring the world of the internet into prisons more and more, so as not to isolate prisoners from the world” declared Puokkala; furthermore, " the inmates are absolutely free to join the initiative , they can work shifts of up to 3 hours and also have other activities available", he added.

Gigi Economy protests
Gig economy workers protest in California to demand more rights and protections. Source: Megan Rose Dickey/Protocol.

However, other voices have been critical of the project . “The narrative that we are moving towards a more automated and efficient society tends to forget the fact that there are real human beings behind many of the digital systems ,” said Amos Toh, a researcher at Human Rights Watch who specializes in artificial intelligence. Toh recalled that the strong evolution of technology has led to a frantic search for low-cost workers to be used to train an AI . Companies also seek labor from groups of people who have no alternative, such as refugees, asylum seekers, citizens of low-income countries and, in this case, prisoners .

Does training an AI allow you to acquire skills? Not exactly

Both Toh and some researchers at the University of Helsinki also highlighted that it is not yet clear how the repetitive and mechanical tasks performed to train an AI can prepare a person for the world of digital work . Human Rights Watch reiterated that more effective and proven initiatives could be encouraged to provide skills to detainees, such as online coding and computer courses.

Finnish public opinion has willingly accepted Metroc's initiative because it trusts in the quality of Finland's prison system , and is sure that the prisoners involved are fully free to choose what activities to carry out. But it is necessary to ask ourselves what effects a similar project applied in countries where prison systems are much harsher and less efficient could have. According to areport by the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), in the United States 75% of prisoners say they are forced to do work . In such a condition, even the training of an AI could effectively become a form of exploitation.

The Mechanical Turk

The social impact of the functioning of an AI can be explained with the story of the Mechanical Turk . Between the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, a Hungarian inventor created a wooden automaton , in the shape of a human dressed as a Middle Easterner (the Turk) and operated by a box full of automated gears . The mechanical Turk was able to play chess thanks to the secret mechanisms of the box, and was such a strong automaton that he beat many chess players of the time , a bit like today's AIs. Legend has it that he also defeated Napoleon at chess .

Training an AI: Mechanical Turk
Illustration of the Mechanical Turk designed in 1770 by Hungarian inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen. The original was destroyed by fire in 1854. Source: Joseph Racknitz – Humboldt University Library.

Everyone wondered the secret of the mechanism. In the end, it was discovered that in the box that operated the Turk there were no automatic gears, but simply a small man , very good at playing chess, who operated the automaton. Behind the mechanical automation there was nothing other than the work of a man, in flesh and blood.

In 2005, Amazon took inspiration from this story to name its crowdsourcing platform, Amazon Mechanical Turk . Crowdsourcing platforms allow you to organize and direct the tasks performed by thousands of human beings around the world , and are used by many companies to train and collect data used by AI.

The underpaid army that makes AI alive

Simply put, Amazon's platform allows you to break down millions of repetitive operations , such as classifying images or recognizing violent social content, into small actions that can be carried out by thousands of workers at the same time . These shares are rewarded as little as a few cents each ; this allows us to reduce the costs of developing a technology such as artificial intelligence, thanks to the thousands of workers who live in low-income countries or who have no alternatives to survive.

Companies that boast of being “FullAI”, and completely digital, are actually supported by thousands of workers forced by social circumstances to carry out repetitive and poorly paid tasks . These workers do not have full freedom to choose another job, as in the case of a detained person, and in some cases can earn less than €2 an hour , while on the other side of the world executives of digital companies receive investments millionaires.

The article Finnish prisoners employed to train an AI and other stories was written on: Tech CuE | Close-up Engineering .