When talking about the average factory worker, the typical persona that comes to mind is one that consistently performs physical strenuous tasks which are extremely repetitive. What’s also well understood is that many of these classically-defined factory jobs are being increasingly automated. The machine has been slowly making our lives easier, though it has caused much distress in terms of economic job loss. The world of the factory worker seems to be outdated, and long gone, but there is a new era of labour upon us—and it’s beginning in China.
In a semi-ironic and an almost romantic ode to older generations, old factories in China are being filled with new types of factories: hundreds of AI tagging start-ups. With the Chinese promising to be the global leader in AI by 2030, the understanding and need for their AI to be competitive and superior has become an immense focus for the country. In 2017, China’s start-ups alone made up more than one-third of the global vision market. China’s competitive advantage in the AI race against the U.S. could possibly be single-handedly due to their ability to tag data.
These factories are filled with workers who quite literally sit in front of a screen, tagging everything they see picture after picture, to help different AI projects (whether it be for search browser, autonomous cars, or facial recognition) better learn to identify and differentiate objects and learn as they go. The interesting part about such factories is that many of these start-ups are developing in rural areas, where overhead cost tends to be cheap—providing those without education as well as those in remote areas with new job opportunities.
This new industry is growing fast, employing hundreds of young citizens around the country. The tasks fit similar job descriptions to those of factory work in the past, just in a completely different context—plenty of manual work, lots of repetition and a focus on quantity.
With AI currently being utterly incapable of learning such things on its own, an entire industry has been born to its aid. Artificial intelligence, while being tagged as the peak of machine automation, is quite literally built on manual human labour, and will continue to be so. With descriptions of the work environments being reasonable, and the average income ranging between $400-$500 (around the nation-wide salary average), it’s been reported that workers prefer AI tagging jobs to other alternatives such as typical “old fashion labour” that would be the only alternative for people living in remote areas. The benefit, many say, is that typically uneducated rural citizens can at least become part of a new, upcoming and important industry.
So even as automation replaces the human touch in industries that have traditionally been human-friendly, it also continues to create new industries, new economic job opportunities and ease the type of strenuous or unwanted work needed to be done. This industry won’t be in need of human workers forever, but it is comforting to know (and consistently has been proven in the last 200 years) that even though we might not be able to fathom the new industries and jobs new technological advancement will create, the ever-changing job landscape will always have room for humans.