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This article was contributed by Wilson Pang, CTO at Appen.

Flexible remote work creates a new freelance category in the AI economy

The new foundation of the artificial intelligence (AI) economy is flexible, remote work. Thanks to advances in technology that enable remote work at an unimaginable scale, organizations developing AI can now collaborate with people from almost anywhere, including previously inaccessible areas. People across the globe can now contribute to building AI in meaningful ways, particularly through data preparation and annotation work. This has led to the emergence of a new and growing freelance category — focused on AI training data annotation and collection.

While many AI economy participants join searching for additional income, a good portion of data annotators join the AI economy because they are seeking challenging opportunities. Whatever their reason, contributors benefit positively from the new opportunities flexible work affords. Geography is no longer an impediment to skill development or participation in projects that they’re enthusiastic about.

Accessibility in the AI economy

Organizations building AI are embracing remote contracting arrangements in order to access the contributions of people around the world. These contributors may not necessarily live in technology hubs, nor have had the opportunity to participate in AI before the arrival of these remote options. In fact, professional options in their locale may be limited as a whole. Appen recently released their Impact Pulse survey of the crowd and found that 40% of contributors rely on the work from home model due to barriers of accessing traditional work. Thirty-two percent were living below the global poverty line before starting with Appen, and of those, 53% have been lifted above due to their work in the AI Economy.

With the increasingly flexible reach of the AI economy, however, companies in the space can recruit these people from the globe’s furthest reaches. Residents from remote villages are now co-producing with people from the largest tech hubs. This cross-collaboration has an extremely sizable impact on the development of AI solutions that work for everyone.

More than money

Participants in the AI economy join the space for a myriad of reasons, and not exclusively for additional income. Contributors often seek out this work for a chance to learn new skills, to explore an interest in AI, or to take part in impactful projects. One contributor from the United States said: “I’m a graduate in electronics engineering and I hope to work in a tech giant company in the near future. I think working on AI projects can help me a lot during my interviews and it’ll be a highlight on my resume.”

Contributors learn both language and technical skills through this flexible participation in the AI economy. Often, these are skills they’d be unable to practice or gain in their local geography. “I have improved my level of English a lot by having to read and study the project guides and use it every day,” expressed one contributor from Spain. “I have managed to learn new vocabulary and am more fluent.” Engaging in data annotation for AI helps contributors practice and become more fluent in their second or third languages, as they work on data to help improve global AI solutions. In a recent survey of contributors, we found that 77% of the respondents speak at least two languages, with 33% speaking at least three languages.

Accessing skills across borders is an imperative nowadays, where AI products and services are expected to work for everyone, no matter the language or local specificities. With this growing group of people working on data and AI projects comes much-needed new and diverse perspectives.

It also goes beyond new skills for those workers with disabilities. Participating in the AI economy provides the opportunity for them to make an income and provide a positive impact to the disability community. For example, those with hearing impairments are working on projects that will improve translations with sign language and help improve the lives of those living with similar disabilities. Providing them with a safe, inclusive space to utilize and hone their skills is invaluable to the AI economy and continues to make a positive impact on society.

Making an impact

Numerous contributors express interest in AI and skill development, but some are simply enthusiastic about being a part of something impactful to society. “Working gives me satisfaction and a sense of purpose; I can contribute to the improvement of artificial intelligence and thereby help countless people around the world who use these technologies,” shared one Appen contributor from Brazil. Intrinsic motivation is a driving factor for many who participate in creating and preparing data that is used in building AI. After all, the technology has major societal implications, and contributors are on the ground floor of shaping what that experience looks like.

While the increase in remote work opportunities has a positive impact on the AI economy, there are also changes happening with the AI projects themselves. Projects are looked at from a responsible angle and answer the question: “Will this project have a positive impact on society?” With more questions being raised in the building process, the purpose of each AI project is more defined. Contributors are seeing their skills and input being used to successfully launch AI projects which are having a positive impact on society.

Certainly, being a part of a global network of collaborators within the AI economy has its advantages for the individuals. But also, this global network benefits the AI teams who rely on it. People around the world enable the scaling of AI solutions in ways that were unimaginable before the growth of the AI economy. With the massive amounts of data required for each project, AI teams looking to have a global impact must rely on a diverse set of global contributors.

This collaboration is a great thing: contributors bring diverse perspectives, skills, and experiences that all shape the AI we interact with every day. Without contributors and flexible work arrangements that enable them to contribute, AI wouldn’t exist as we know it. In a world where everyone can participate, we all benefit.

Wilson Pang is the CTO of Appen.

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