Serious questions for Siri on contracts, work

Serious questions for Siri on contracts, work

Researchers who have asked Apple to publish material about the nature of the questions asked of Siri, its voice-activated virtual assistant that mimics human intelligence, and attempts natural conversation, haven’t got very far.

It’s information the corporation wants to keep to itself, perhaps because many iPad and smartphone users in need of a laugh can get one by asking her silly questions: what’s zero divided by zero, perhaps, or what’s your phone number?

The revelation that people employed in Cork by third-party contractors — GlobeTech — to listen to and grade Siri’s responses to questions were required to snoop on more than 1,000 recordings per shift, and this was to be done without Apple users knowing about it, suggests a sober question … not for Siri but for Apple and the firms to which it outsources what might be described fairly as donkey work.

What in 2019 adds up to a satisfactory contract between a company that wants work done and people — be they self-employed in the so-called gig economy or on a payroll — willing to do it?

We do not need Siri to tell us that 1,000 recordings — much of them, no doubt, of mind-bending banality — per eight-hour shift breaks down to 125 an hour. That, by any reasonable definition, is industrial-scale donkey work, sufficient to risk breakdowns for some.

Yet in our market economy, people are free to decline work — and take the consequences — or accept contracts that not only impose intolerable burdens but also require them to aid and abet activities that occasion concern about privacy breaches.

One of those who laboured in this hi-tech yard says the listeners and graders were asked to sign agreements forbidding them to talk in detail about what they did, and disclosing that the work was being done for Apple.

Those are conditions that would be unexceptional in employment contracts offered by Ireland’s military intelligence service — or the CIA and MI5. Are they to be the new normal for corporations and their suppliers in the highly flexible buyer’s employment market with which our politicians, for all their talk of the need for transparency and dignity in the workplace, seem content?

Where is the dignity in short fixed-term contracts that, while they might well suit some workers, can be trashed without notice, albeit there might be a “goodwill” gesture in the shape of one week’s pay and pay in lieu of accumulated but unused holiday entitlements?

Where in all this labour market flexibility, with contracts barely worth the paper they’re written on, will be the benefits for a society and a state increasingly dependent on an employment market that thrives on job insecurity, discourages the savings habit, damages once stable, rooted communities, and — when saying people are self-employed when they are patently not — deprives the finance ministry of PRSI funds?

Our political class is silent on these important matters. Perhaps Apple’s Siri might have some helpful answers to the profound questions about the direction in which our economy is being allowed to drift. We’ll not, though, hold our breath.

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