A Controversial Finnish Prison Program uses Prisoners to Train AI

An AI-startup has turned to Finnish prisons for training its new artificial intelligence. The Finland based startup Vainu, is an AI startup which seeks to connect companies with contractors. Its program uses artificial intelligence for processing thousands of business related articles to classify and identify companies and contractors based on their industry.

For the program to work properly, individuals have to read through the entire article to determine the industry of the article so that AI is able to tag companies appropriately.

 In case of English language articles, it is as simple as setting an Amazon Mechanical Turk account and giving the work to online workers. The problem is about Finnish language articles, once they hired a trainee to identify these articles for them but one trainee is just not enough to process all these articles.

That’s when the company’s cofounder Tuomas Rasila came up with an idea to use prisoners instead of trainees to do the job. The idea came as Rasila found out that the country’s Criminal Sanctions Agency woks out of the same building where Vainu’s headquarters are based.

CSA operates all the Finnish prisons and Vainu entered an agreement with CSA and decided to pay the agency for every task completed by the prisoner. The same amount of money is paid to the CSA as was being paid to Mechanical Turk but in this case, it will be CSA’s job to allot work to prisoners. The startup has used these Finnish prisoners for testing AI for past several months.

Prison labor is not a new concept, but using prisoners for training AI is an unfortunate line crossed by the tech industry for the first time. CSA and Vainu are promoting the idea as some sort of prison reform which seeks to teach prisoners some valuable job skill which can be used in the outside world.

The program’s ethical grounds seem to be shaky as there is no information available whether the prisoners were given a choice or if they were made aware of the full scope of the project. While there is nothing wrong with getting paid for such jobs, the money is contributed by the CSA and later distributed to the prisoners but there’s no assurance that the prisoners will get the full payment that CSA receives.

The Verge also pointed out that the median wage of the Mechanical Turk workers is about $2 an hour. This is in itself exploitative in an open fully consensual settings and getting such wage in a prison settings makes it a violation of human rights. Besides the ethical questions raised against such program, the arrangement has worked out fine for Vainu as they are seeking to expand the program to other countries as well.

About the author

Nandini Roy Choudhury

Nandini Roy Choudhury

Nandini Roy Choudhury is a thought leader and subject matter expert on a range of industries, notably retail & consumer goods. Her analytical skills and lucid qualitative analysis have made her an authoritative figure on this domain.

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