Improving the PROSPECTS for workers powering AI

The PROSPECTS programme and the International Training Centre of the International Labour Organization jointly hosted the fifth installment of the Learning Lab Series, with a focus on how AI could mitigate or broaden the digital divide and the potential of using AI to promote inclusive and decent work.

News | 27 October 2023
Geneva, Switzerland (ILO News) – As Artificial Intelligence (AI) and other auto generative technologies continue to advance and transform the world of work, there is a growing concern that the digital divide may widen. However, these new technologies also hold the promise of narrowing this gap and creating job and business opportunities, including for refugees and their host communities.

The fifth Learning Lab session, jointly hosted by the PROSPECTS programme and the International Training Centre (ITC) of the International Labour Organization (ILO), delved into the digital divide in the era of AI and explored how AI can be used to foster an inclusive labour market.

"Despite the growing presence of AI in daily activities and jobs, a significant portion of the world’s population, approximately 2.7 billion people, remained offline in 2022. This includes refugees, often residing in remote regions with limited access to electricity, sim cards, and e-banking services," highlighted Zulum Avila, from the ILO.

Bernd Mueller, Manager of the Employment Policy and Analysis Programme at the ITC, echoed Avila’s opinion, emphasizing that internet connectivity, particularly in Africa and rural areas – is still restricted. The digital divide hampers skills development and affects access to work opportunities for refugees and marginalized communities in this rapidly evolving tech ecosystems.

For communities impacted by forcible displacement, the digital divide in the era of AI manifests in barriers to accessibility, connectivity, and usability, as highlighted by Jessica Mony, Head of Social Impact and Partnerships at Appen, a global leader in providing human-annotated data for machine learning and AI applications. To include refugees in their global talent pool, Appen has extended its presence to countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, and Turkey, providing a comprehensive support system to address barriers like lack of identification documents and challenges in accessing payments. “Human involvement in the development of AI  is key to keep this technology  helpful, harmless, honest”, explained Mony, as she discussed Appen's approach.

This point was also reinforced by Hester Gartrell, Chief Impact Officer at Humans in the Loop, an award-winning social enterprise founded in 2017 with the vision to connect conflict-affected communities to digital work. “We currently have a workforce of more than 250 conflict-affected people who are working to power some of the most exciting applications of AI”, explained Gartrell. Humans in the Loop partners with a network of established local organizations with a proven track record to onboard the targeted groups through paid training programmes and to navigate around employing and paying people in conflict-affected or fragile contexts.

Significant barriers persist in accessing both AI technology and jobs in the AI industry. “Unless we address these connectivity challenges, access to generative AI tools, which require significant bandwidth will remain limited”, explained Mony. She highlighted the importance of skills development as well, since the effective use of generative AI tools requires advanced critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Regrettably, in some regions of the Global South and among refugees, educational gaps can impede individuals who lack access to these essential skills from leveraging AI tools.

Several factors limit individuals’ access to work opportunities in the AI industry. Gartrell highlighted that entrenched cultural norms in specific regions pose significant obstacles, particularly affecting women's participation in AI-related work. Furthermore, a skills gap exists. While there is a persistent demand for data collection work that typically requires lower skills, the job market is undergoing a noticeable shift. The emergence of generative AI tools has created a growing need for individuals with specialized skills in various verticals such as healthcare, finance, accounting, and legal domains. Nonetheless, foundational data collection remains crucial, acting as a vital entry point for low-skilled refugees and presenting an avenue for skilled professionals to re-engage with the job market.

Mony emphasized the importance of viewing the AI industry as a supply chain, and how partnerships with organizations like the Responsible Business Alliance contribute to establishing ethical standards and practices. Appen actively collaborates with the Fairwork Project, an initiative by the Oxford Internet Institute and the WZB Berlin Social Science Center to assess and enhance working conditions, advocating for fairness in the application of new technologies in the workplace. Humans in the Loop also prioritizes decent work. “We ensure fair work conditions for our annotators and we take a firm anti-exploitation stance in each country that we work”, added Gartrell.

While the long-term social effects of AI are still being evaluated, careful management of the AI industry can provide decent work opportunities to marginalized groups. This Learning Lab episode explored the potential of AI to address accessibility and usability barriers for learning and working, and presented innovative practices using AI to expand work opportunities for people in refugee settings.

This event was supported by the PROSPECTS Opportunity Fund project on the Promotion, inclusion and protection of refugees and host communities in the gig economy, with the generous funding of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.