From iPhone to ChatGPT: the technology you use is made in poor hands

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From iPhone to ChatGPT: the technology you use is made in poor hands

The cheap clothes you wear and the fashionable shoes you wear have probably been made under conditions of precariousness by factory employees in countries such as Bangladesh, Myanmar, Indonesia or China. They could even be the result of forced labor. The same thing happens with technology.

Although we can't see it, an invisible thread connects the latest generation mobile phone. that you keep in your pocket, our favorite social networks and the artificial intelligence that fascinates us so much in countries of the global south where labor is much cheaper, especially in sub-Saharan Africa or Southeast Asia. Not a thread, but the supply chainglobal. A reality that goes beyond the ordinary. The extraction of essential minerals for the manufacture of technological devices such as lithium, coltan, or cobalt has come about.

This is the case of the famous ChatGPT, a program capable of simulating a human conversation and answering all kinds of questions from users almost in real time. Even summarize complex texts in simple terms, do your homework, compose music or write a novel imitating a literary style. When interacting with the machine it may seem like it's doing magic, but that feeling is there. far from reality. The system, which is already used by more than 100 million users a month, has been programmed to learn from millions of pieces of data it extracts from the Internet.

Postcolonial inequality

On Jan. 18, a TIME magazine investigation uncovered a smuggler's story. that OpenAI, the company responsible for that chatbot had subcontracted workers in Kenya to check its proper functioning. Using the information it pulls from the web leads ChatGPT to make major mistakes and even replicate hate messages. The mission of the Kenyan employees is to test the program over and over again and mark the wrong answers. This categorization allows reducing biases and refining responses. That homework is vital, but it's still hard to do. his salary was equivalent to two dollars per hour worked.

The decision to outsource these tasks to Kenya evidences an unequal post-colonial relationship between tech giants and developing nations. The salary paid to Kenyan workers is above the country's average, but it is increasing. This is a far cry from the $14.71 per hour that employees in the United States are charged for the same task. Other positions at that company charge between $192,000 and $273,000 a year. After the multi-million dollar investment made by Microsoftin January, OpenAI is launching. It is valued at 29,000 million.

“There are more and more workers willing to compete wildly to access lower and lower wages. This model is spreading throughout the world” .

Ekaitz Cancela, journalist and researcher

“There are more and more workers willing to compete savagely to access lower and lower wages,” technopolitical researcher Ekaitz Cancela explained to EL PERIÓDICO. “It's a model that's spreading to all corners of the world.”

North-South Asymmetry

This reality is changing. It is far from being an anomaly. OpenAI outsourced These employees were provided through Sama, a Californian company that manages centers in Kenya and Uganda To carry out these more mechanical tasks and to which other giants in the sector such as Google , Walmart , Microsoft or Meta resort. If when you 'scroll' on Facebook and Instagram you don't see videos of murders, rapes or animal abuse, it's not because they don't exist, but because those employees have seen them and removed before. With the consequent psychological impact that this entails.

Sama describes itself as an ethical company whose mission is to use the digital economy to give opportunities to vulnerable people. However, he faces lawsuits for forced labor, human trafficking and union repression, which also include Meta. One of those complaints was filed last May by Daniel Motaung, an indirect employee of the social media giant. “When you're poor, it's hard to negotiate things in a work environment,” explained Mr. to 'The Africa Report'. “Even though they can unionize, these employees would do so within the framework of vulnerable countries like Kenya that cannot negotiate with these multinationals and where the lack of labor protection is tremendous,” adds Cancela. International pressure does. has succeeded in getting Sama to stop providing moderation services to the company led by Mark Zuckerberg.

Financial benefit

As happens in other industries such as textiles or agri-food, technology companies in the northern hemisphere take advantage of a south in which low-valued and low-paid jobs are concentrated. This relocation supposes them an important economic benefit. In addition to receiving subsidies from the countries that want to attract them and saving labor problems and the salaries of employees in richer countries., companies like Meta, Alphabet (Google parent) or Microsoft exploit legal loopholes in global tax laws to stop paying some 2.8 billion of dollars, according to a study by the NGO ActionAid of 2020. Such an incentive only perpetuates this asymmetry of power.

“The less developed the country, the greater the penetration of these companies “

Ekaitz Cancela

Apple has spent more than a decade concentrating most of the production of < strong>iPhone in China. The escalation of tension between Washington and Beijing has made the apple company and other heavyweights in the industry such as Google, >Amazon or Microsoft move part of the manufacturing of their products to countries such as Vietnam , India or Thailand to reduce their dependence on the Asian giant ;tic. Although part of this strategy responds to geopolitical reasons, companies continue to prioritize their pockets. The annual income of Chinese manufacturers has tripled in the last ten years to more than 8,820 euros, according to the country's Statistics Office. In their new destinations, labor is much cheaper.

This logic of vampirizing extraction points in a cyclical direction. “The less developed the country, the greater the penetration of these companies,” says Cancela. “They exploit countries and their resources because it is the only way to ensure their profits and compete with a country with a country without labor rights like China.” That is the model towards which we are going.