Recently, some people might have heard about a Finnish startup that is using prison labor for the purpose of training its AI. In short, a Finnish startup called Vainu is making a database of businesses to help interested parties find contractors to meet their needs. However, for it to succeed in this regard, it needs people to read through business articles in order to determine their subjects, thus providing guidance to the still learning system.
Initially, Vainu decided to go with Amazon Mechanical Turk to get people who are willing to do these tasks. However, there was a serious issue in that most of the people on Amazon Mechanical Turk live in the United States while what Vainu wanted were people who could read Finnish. As a result, Vainu decided to approach the Criminal Sanctions Agency, which is the part of the Finnish government that is responsible for overseeing Finnish prisons to see if they could make use of prison labor for said purpose.
Now, Vainu has all of the labor that it needs for training up its system. However, what it is doing is raising some serious ethical questions. Granted, it is still a bit too soon to say that we are headed towards a cyberpunk future, but it is nonetheless something that is well worth mulling over.
Should This Be Considered Exploitation?
For starters, the two main parties that are involved in the whole business are putting a very positive spin on it, which is perhaps unsurprising when they have so much to gain. On Vainu’s part, they are getting all of the labor that they need at very, very low prices. Certainly, they are paying the prisoners the same amount of money that they pay people on Amazon Mechanical Turk, but it is important to note that most users on said platform pay their laborers very low rates for very simple tasks, which is as true in this case as it is in others.
Meanwhile, the Criminal Sanctions Agency benefits from the prisoners can perform this task with nothing more than a laptop, thus minimizing the chances of said individuals getting their hands on either something dangerous or something that can be used to make something dangerous. Yes, Finland is famous for its progress stance on its prison system, which produces much better results than its more punitive counterparts. However, that is nonetheless a serious concern for it, thus making it very easy to see what the Criminal Sanctions Agency is thinking. On top of this, the Criminal Sanctions Agency has an additional gain in that it can secure some positive press by claiming that its partner is helping it provide its charges with the kind of skills that see use in the modern economy.
Of course, the issue with this statement is that it is very, very misleading. Speaking bluntly, the skill that the prisoners are honing happens to be literacy, which is certainly very useful in day-to-day life but not really something that would provide anyone with a competitive edge in the job market when the world literacy rate is about 90 percent for males for 82.7 percent for females. Never mind the numbers found in the developed part of the world. As a result, the prisoners aren’t actually being prepared for the job market once they are released, which is definitely a shady move on the part of the Criminal Sanctions Agency that should be condemned.
On the whole, this isn’t even close to being the worst example of prisoners being exploited for their labor. People who are curious can find more examples in more countries with no more than a cursory search on Google or any other search engine. However, just because there are worst examples out there, it doesn’t mean that this particular example should be overlooked.
As for what can be done about said issue, there is no simple and straightforward answer to that question, not least because different countries need different solutions of their own. Prisoners are often regarded in a very negative light by wide swathes of society for perhaps understandable reasons, with the result that the exploitation of prisoners is often overlooked by the rest of us. Unfortunately, that kind of exploitation has very real negative effects on prisoner outcomes, which in turn, increases the negative effects on society as a whole.