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Human variable of the digital equation | How we fit in as parts of algorithms

Technology has made life easy and convenient for humans. At least it always intended too. Throughout these posts, we have gone through the multiple scenarios where technology affects us in un-anticipated ways.

Be it addiction by design, pervasiveness of data collection, never ending discussion on digital privacy or ethics in design and AI, we have seen how technology affects us: the consumers. But consumers, despite being a broad term, does not cover all aspects in which humans are involved with technology. There exists more to it and that’s exactly what this blog post is about.

Algorithm /ˈalɡərɪð(ə)m/ noun a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer.

These set of rules that we call programs/algorithms run at the backend of every app we use. But not all steps of these apps are fulfilled by machine alone. Wondering?

For instance, the last step in Amazon delivery or food delivery apps like Swiggy/Foodpanda etc. is always a door delivery by human. This is a totally mechanized job, which is done by humans, because maybe it’s still some way to existence and wide acceptance of cheap and trustworthy bots that can do the same. Here, humans complete the last part of the equation. What good can such a job do to anyone apart from allowing that person make a few bucks? Same goes with cab hiring apps where humans are the critical components of running the whole service. All these apps and services have undoubtedly increased the number of humans that we interact with on a daily basis, but these come to us wrapped as algorithmic pieces. There’s no human connection. There’s no humanity or identity involved whatsoever.

It’s just like a machine logic channeling a bunch of humans to our doorstep every now and then.

It seems crazy if we look at it this way. Would we have interacted with these humans the same way had we encountered them in a different context?

Are these the only meaningless jobs created for humans for the sake of fulfilment of an algorithmic piece? Guess what, there exist worse.

In lack of machine learning logic to classify the videos rightly, companies hire humans to do the content moderation, review objectionable and disturbing content on the platform, like recently hosted live-streamed footage of murder, suicide and rape. The reviewers go through hundreds of such visuals every shift. Such work is grueling and, experts say, can lead to psychological trauma. Repeated exposure to extreme content can lead to “secondary trauma”, which is a condition similar to PTSD, but the witness is looking at images of what happened rather than being traumatized themselves.

Suicidal tendency and mental sickness have been reported in workers doing the job. Such jobs are clearly inhumane but are coming up to introduce moderations in lack of better developed algorithms. Isn’t this insane?

At times, humans especially in poor/developing countries are much cheaper than developing algorithms.

Heard of CAPTCHA farms?

Checkout this mindblowing podcast!

It talks about how CAPTCHA’s came into use. CAPTCHA stands for Completely Automated Public Turing Test To Tell Computers And Humans Apart. These are visual puzzles, usually identifying letters etc. that appear while sign up to ensure that a human is signing up and it’s not an automated bot creating spam accounts (which can later be misused). The difficulty of the puzzles are always kept in such a manner that a human is able to identify and solve it but at the same time a machine fails to solve it. However, increasing machine learning has posed threats to the reliability of the logic, it looks like people have found an alternative to bypass it. “CAPTCHA farms”, these are innumerous real human beings who are paid very meagre amount to solve these CAPTCHAs in real time throughout the day. No CAPTCHA can survive a human that’s receiving financial incentives for solving it, and with an army of low-waged human CAPTCHA solvers officially in the business of “data processing” while earning a mere $2 for solving a thousand CAPTCHA’s.

These are the kind of residual jobs that get created with advancement of technology. There are still some things that humans are capable of doing, though the gap is narrowing down, it’s just our physical and biological abilities which are up for hire in certain fitting scenarios.

If we advance on such a path, what kind of world will it be? When we say AI will improve lives of people and automate mundane jobs, who are the people we are talking about? Is AI expected to widen the gap between rich and poor or will it act as a force for good and a leveler? Given the cases that we talked about, the rosy picture that AI paints of a better future doesn't seem like a better future for whole of mankind. Are there solutions to these problems?

Well, the post has reached it’s length so let’s close this one on these hovering thoughts. Take a moment, give it a thought and do let me know what is your opinion in the comments.

See you in next post soon!

Till then , take care, keep hacking ❤


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