How Cheap Labor Drives China’s A.I. Ambitions

While A.I. engines are superfast learners and good at tackling complex calculations, they lack cognitive abilities that even the average 5-year-old possesses. Small children know that a furry brown cocker spaniel and a black Great Dane are both dogs. They can tell a Ford pickup from a Volkswagen Beetle, and yet they know both are cars.

A.I. has to be taught. It must digest vast amounts of tagged photos and videos before it realizes that a black cat and a white cat are both cats. This is where the data factories and their workers come in.

Taggers helped AInnovation, a Beijing-based A.I. company, fix its automated cashier system for a Chinese bakery chain. Users could put their pastry under a scanner and pay for it without help from a human. But nearly one-third of the time, the system had trouble telling muffins from doughnuts or pork buns thanks to store lighting and human movement, which made images more complex. Working with photos from the store’s interior, the taggers got the accuracy up to 99 percent, said Liang Rui, an AInnovation project manager.

“All the artificial intelligence is built on human labor,” Mr. Liang said.

AInnovation has fewer than 30 taggers, but a surge in labeling start-ups has made it easy to farm out the work. Once, Mr. Liang needed to get about 20,000 photos in a supermarket labeled in three days. Colleagues got it done with the help of data factories for only a couple thousand dollars.

“We’re the assembly lines 10 years ago,” said Mr. Yi, the co-founder of the data factory in Henan.

The data factories are popping up in areas far from the biggest cities, often in relatively remote areas where both labor and office space are cheap. Many of the data factory workers are the kinds of people who once worked on assembly lines and construction sites in those big cities. But work is drying up, wage growth has slowed and many Chinese people prefer to live closer to home.

Mr. Yi, 36, was out of a job and trying to get other ventures going with elementary school classmates when someone mentioned A.I. tagging. After online searches, he decided it wasn’t super technical but needed cheap labor, something Henan has in abundance.