After facing a backlash and employee opposition to Google's involvement in the US military's controversial drone-based "Project Maven", the search engine giant has been involving gig economy workers who have unknowingly been improving Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) technologies used in the project, The Intercept reported on Tuesday.
In a gig economy which is a free market system, it is common for organisations to contract with independent workers for short- term engagements. To work on "Project Maven", the workers were hired through a US-based crowdsourcing gig company called Figure Eight, that pays employees to perform short tasks.
In October 2017, Google sent raw images with instructions on data labelling to a company called CrowdFlower - which subsequently changed its name to Figure Eight - and as the engineers developed better guidelines for crowd workers to teach AI to identify objects, the project started showing quicker results.
The outsourced workers were tasked with providing the initial image data labelling - correctly identifying parts of an image - that allowed Pentagon officials to engage in "near-real time analysis" and to "click on a building and see everything associated with it," including people and vehicles, according to leaked documents obtained by The Intercept.
In September 2018, an account executive at Figure Eight confirmed his company's role in Google's project where workers performing the data labelling, known as "contributors," did not know that they were working for Google or for the military, which is not an unusual arrangement. "Asked if crowd workers have continued to contribute to Project Maven, a spokesperson for Google referred our questions to Figure Eight, which did not respond to the inquiry," the report said.
Google defended the project against its employees last year -- saying that the technology was intended to save lives and save people from having to do highly tedious work. In April 2018, Google Cloud Chief Diane Greene promised employees that Google would not sign up for any further work on 'Maven' or similar projects without having new ethical principles in place.
However, In June 2018, after nearly 4,000 Google employees signed a petition demanding "a clear policy stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology," the company had decided not to renew the current contract after it expired, media had reported.
(With inputs from agencies.)