Zombie Trainers and a New Era of Forced Labor

By Adrienne Williams

Recent headlines are raising concerns on the viability of artificial intelligence (AI) companies like OpenAI and Anthropic to maintain the rapid pace of data collection needed to build new and more complex AI models. Headlines from a recent Wall Street Journal article says they have burned through the entire internet, and need new sources for data collection.

We need to question how data collection, and other AI labor, is happening in the first place. Lack of transparency around data collection, and the creation of AI systems at large, has given way to an invisible form of forced labor.

A new type of „Zombie Trainer“ has emerged. These are people who work as data labelers, content moderators, or image data collectors without their knowledge. Captive audiences, like refugeeschildrenprisoners, and low wage workers are all Zombie Trainers, unaware of the hidden tasks they perform, the new industries they’re building, or the communities being harmed in the process. To be sure, corporate leaders will say that Zombie Trainers are not unpaid laborers because they are children or prisoners and therefore are not entitled to payment, or they are already being paid for the jobs they were hired to perform.

While I recognize that many will not have empathy for prisoners, and loopholes within the 13th Amendment actually makes slavery legal, there are no loopholes that say the families of prisoners can be subjected to that same treatment. Yet, Amazon provides free communication monitoring technology to prisons that monitor all of their phone calls. They then utilize that communication data to build out their AI systems, creating massive profit for Amazon and zero compensation for communities who are unaware of their role in their own forced labor.

Amazon delivery drivers are an example of highly profitable Zombie Trainers. As a former Amazon delivery driver, I’m lucky to have quit a month before Amazon made third party, AI powered Netradyne cameras mandatory in every Amazon branded vehicle. Cameras on the outside allow a 360-degree view of every road, freeway, landmark, and building a driver passes. Such data is vital for the creation of high definition 3D maps, visual road data from every inch of a city, state, or country. The first company to create a fully established 3D map will corner the market on autonomous vehicle (AV) technology.

Nowhere in a driver’s job description are they referred to as AI trainers. Training AI systems for AV technology is not mentioned in the consent forms, which drivers have been forced to either sign or lose their jobs. Yet, Netradyne’s co-founder and CTO David Julian says their goal of creating autonomous vehicle technology is quickly becoming a reality.

Netradyne has collected over 500 million miles of road data, more than any other company. Hyundai has partnered with Netradyne to avoid paying wages. They admit it is the cost of hiring enough surveyors and equipping enough cars with data collection cameras that is keeping automakers from creating their own driverless car technology. Thus, admitting that the data collection from Netradyne’s Zombie Trainers is in fact a job. Partnering with Netradyne means Hyundai can use the data collected by commercial truckers and delivery drivers, without compensating them for their work.

Children are also Zombie Trainers, both at school and in their personal lives. Every Google search, text message, game, or ed-tech app kids interact with supplies tech companies with massive amounts of child data. They use it to build their own AI systems, then share or sell it with other companies, advertisers, or government agencies. Parents who might otherwise fight on behalf of their kids are continuously misinformed around the subject of data collection, its potential harms, and the massive profits it creates for tech companies. It is not a coincidence that most major tech companiesVC firmscelebrities, and CEOs are all heavily invested in ed-tech products and/or corporate charter schools.

Companies like Kinzoo, market their kids‘ tech products under the guise of safety, stating, „Safety is the foundation for all our products, and we create innovative features designed to protect kids online.“ Yet, they are listed along with apps like Messenger Kids, Roblox, and YouTube Kids as companies who collect the most data from children.

Governments and regulatory agencies have to educate themselves on these new technologies, and then use their power to enforce our laws. Child labor laws must be updated to include language making it illegal to use children as Zombie Trainers. And we as a society must decide once and for all where we stand on forced labor.

Guidelines from U.S. Homeland Security should be followed as they pertain to forced labor. Creating invisible jobs that benefit employers financially is forced labor by way of fraud, and, yes … it is already illegal.

About the Author

Adrienne Williams

Adrienne started organizing in 2018 while working as a junior high teacher for a tech owned and operated charter school. She expanded her organizing in 2020 after her work as an Amazon delivery driver during the pandemic afforded her the ability to see that many of the same issues that caused her to leave the charter schools were happening at Amazon as well. Since then she has worked both on the ground and behind the scenes with activists, politicians, researchers, and everyday people to enact positive change in the tech, labor, and education industries by exposing and educating the public on how these industries harm and ways in which that harm can be reversed. She hopes her unique lived experience working within and organizing against these industries aids in pushing towards a more equitable society. Adrienne is currently a Public Voices Fellow on Technology in the Public Interest with The OpEd Project in partnership with The MacArthur Foundation; As well as a research Fellow at the Distributed AI Research Institute (DAIR) and Just Tech.

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