Next time you ask Alexa a question, your voice might fly halfway round the world to Chennai, India, where human workers toil away to fine tune her artificial intelligence- (AI-) powered responses.
In nine-hour shifts workers transcribe audio, classify words and phrases into categories, and evaluate responses from Amazon’s digital assistant. It’s one of many Amazon centres around the world where “data associates” prepare millions of chunks of data to train Alexa’s AI.
The work can be relentless, says a former employee. He was crunching roughly 700 Alexa questions a day with strict benchmarks for how long each should take. Workers’ performance figures were circulated daily and targets crept up over the time he spent there. The work was monotonous, but the volume and pace were mentally exhausting, and he eventually quit.
“It's not possible to work like a machine every day,” he says. “The system is built in such a way that every time you have to give 100%. From the point of a human, it’s not possible.”
To users, digital assistants, search engines, social media and streaming services seem like software wizardry, but their smooth running relies on armies of humans whose contribution often goes unrecognised.