These Prisoners Are Training AI

training ai
training ai

CROSS A STERILE white table in a windowless room, I’m introduced to a woman in her forties. She has a square jaw and blonde hair that has been pulled back from her face with a baby-blue scrunchie. “The girls call me Marmalade,” she says, inviting me to use her prison nickname. Early on a Wednesday morning, Marmalade is here, in a Finnish prison, to demonstrate a new type of prison labor.

The table is bare except for a small plastic bottle of water and an HP laptop. During three-hour shifts, for which she’s paid €1.54 ($1.67) an hour, the laptop is programmed to show Marmalade short chunks of text about real estate and then ask her yes or no questions about what she’s just read. One question asks: “is the previous paragraph referring to a real estate decision, rather than an application?”

“It’s a little boring,” Marmalade shrugs. She’s also not entirely sure of the purpose of this exercise. Maybe she is helping to create a customer service chatbot, she muses.

In fact, she is training a large language model owned by Metroc, a Finnish startup that has created a search engine designed to help construction companies find newly approved building projects. To do that, Metroc needs data labelers to help its models understand clues from news articles and municipality documents about upcoming building projects. The AI has to be able to tell the difference between a hospital project that has already