Sun. Oct 1st, 2023
    Using Prison Labor to Train AI: A Case Study in Finland

    In Finnish prisons, a unique approach to prison labor is being implemented to train artificial intelligence (AI) models. Metroc, a Finnish startup, has developed a search engine that helps construction companies locate newly approved building projects. To enable their AI models to understand clues from news articles and municipality documents, data labelers are employed to assist in the labeling process.

    Traditionally, such data labeling is carried out by “clickworkers”, often based in the global south, who teach machines to distinguish between various objects, actions, or concepts. However, due to the language barrier, there is a scarcity of Finnish-speaking clickworkers available. This dilemma led Metroc to explore alternative options, ultimately turning to the Finnish prison system.

    In Finnish prisons, inmates are provided employment opportunities that aim to prepare them for the digital realm of work upon their release. Through this collaboration, Metroc gains access to cost-effective, Finnish-speaking workers, while prisoners have the chance to engage in meaningful labor that develops valuable skills for their future.

    The training process involves inmates like Marmalade, who spend three-hour shifts using an HP laptop to read short excerpts about real estate and answer related questions. While Marmalade finds the exercise somewhat tedious, she speculates that she may be contributing to the development of a customer service chatbot.

    The use of prison labor to train AI models raises concerns about exploitation and underpaid work, echoing issues that have plagued the tech industry in the past. However, in Finland, this initiative has garnered widespread support. Tuukka Lehtiniemi, a University of Helsinki researcher studying data labor in Finnish prisons, notes that Finland’s approach to data labor differs significantly from the global perception of such practices.

    The project not only addresses the language barrier but also provides inmates with valuable skills that can boost their employability in the digital job market. By engaging prisoners in productive work, Finland’s prison system aims to facilitate their successful reintegration into society after their release.

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