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2 years ago
Training Self-Driving Cars for $1 An Hour

Originally published in, Aug 3, 2021.

To master the roads, autonomous vehicles need lots of data. Workers everywhere from Kenya to Venezuela are providing it.

Every day for over four years, Ramses woke up in his home in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, turned on his computer, and began labeling images that will help make self-driving cars ubiquitous one day. Through a microtasking platform called Remotasks, he would identify mundane objects that line the streets everywhere — trees, lampposts, pedestrians, stop signs — so that autonomous vehicles could learn to notice them, too.

Like many Venezuelans, Ramses turned to microtasking when his country plunged into economic turmoil. The gig gave him the opportunity to earn American dollars instead of the local currency, which is subject to extraordinarily high inflation. “I would work Sunday to Sunday,” Ramses, who asked to use only his first name for privacy reasons, told Rest of World over WhatsApp“I never rested, but I made good money for 12-hour days, seven days a week.”

Across the world, people like Ramses, many in the Global South, have become part of a sophisticated new labor force training self-driving cars. Based everywhere from Kenya to the Philippines, these workers play a crucial but rarely acknowledged role in one of the most prominent parts of the tech industry.

In the early 2010s, around the same time Venezuela’s economy began to collapse, companies started pouring enormous sums of money into self-driving cars. By 2015, Google’s parent company had already spent over $1 billion developing its autonomous vehicle program. A Brookings Institution report published in 2017 estimated that tech firms and car manufacturers had invested more than $80 billion in the technology, all in the hopes of being on what was then considered the “leading edge” of artificial intelligence. Many firms promised investors and consumers that it would be only a few years before driverless vehicles would be commonplace.

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