Via Cory Doctorow: “So much AI turns out to be low-waged people in a call center in the Global South pretending to be robots that Indian techies have a joke about it: “AI stands for ‘absent Indian'”.”
A reader wrote to me this week. They’re a multi-decade veteran of Amazon who had a fascinating tale about the launch of Amazon Go, the “fully automated” Amazon retail outlets that let you wander around, pick up goods and walk out again, while AI-enabled cameras totted up the goods in your basket and charged your card for them. According to this reader, the AI cameras didn’t work any better than Tesla’s full-self driving mode, and had to be backstopped by a minimum of three camera operators in an Indian call center, “so that there could be a quorum system for deciding on a customer’s activity – three autopilots good, two autopilots bad.” Amazon got a ton of press from the launch of the Amazon Go stores. A lot of it was very favorable, of course: Mister Market is insatiably horny for firing human beings and replacing them with robots, so any announcement that you’ve got a human-replacing robot is a surefire way to make Line Go Up. But there was also plenty of critical press about this – pieces that took Amazon to task for replacing human beings with robots. What was missing from the criticism? Articles that said that Amazon was probably lying about its robots, that it had replaced low-waged clerks in the USA with even-lower-waged camera-jockeys in India. Which is a shame, because that criticism would have hit Amazon where it hurts, right there in the ole Line Go Up. Amazon’s stock price boost off the back of the Amazon Go announcements represented the market’s bet that Amazon would evert out of cyberspace and fill all of our physical retail corridors with monopolistic robot stores, moated with IP that prevented other retailers from similarly slashing their wage bills. That unbridgeable moat would guarantee Amazon generations of monopoly rents, which it would share with any shareholders who piled into the stock at that moment.