Artificial intelligence is powered by ghosts

Robert Thompson
3 min readNov 13, 2020


Artificial intelligence is winning and the robots are taking over. That’s the big fear for the future of work. I’m not so sure humans are doomed just yet

Consider this report by the Onward think tank:

looked at 50 areas in the UK where workers are the most vulnerable to automation, and 43 of these voted for the Brexit Party in the European elections.

Without widespread retraining, it warns, there’ll be a political revolt. Contrast that with says another report which says the opposite. Automation 2.0, is going after high-skilled jobs. It has already hit architects. Developers now use standard software to construct bland buildings. The only consult an architect for a final review. So is it only a matter of time before the robots surpass us in all areas of mental activity? Not really, if we realise that artificial intelligence is as much an ideology as a process.

This much is clear from the book, Ghost Work by Mary L. Gray and Siddharth Suri.

The authors make it plain that artificial intelligence isn’t as artificial as it’s made out to be. So much of it is an illusion sustained by human intervention.

“Beyond the Amazon Echo assistant in your kitchen or the disembodied apps glowing on your iPhone screen are a hidden army of ‘ghost workers’ who intervene when algorithms trip up.”

Artificial intelligence and ghost work

Around the world, there are some 20 million of these ghosts at work. And it is:

  • they who process tricky takeaway orders.
  • who verify your Uber driver’s picture when an algorithm fails
  • the people who pretend to be artificial intelligence powered chatbots
  • they step in when algorithms that power sites fail, and
  • do all the small tasks needed to make the machines succeed.

Ghost workers do the mundane jobs that our economy has yet to automate. The reason is that it’s easier and cheaper to use humans to behave like machines than it is to develop machines that simulate human behaviour. After all the human brain isn’t a computer.

Human judgement and creativity are not the output of a series of syntactical rules. Silicon Valley makes huge profits by trying to persuade us that they are. They try to make us, like the architects, the servants of whatever their faulty algorithms dictate. So the future of work does not look like the hyped media stories about robots.

Above all, it isn’t that artificial intelligence is becoming more human. It’s that human intelligence is becoming more artificial, more conformist, and more rule-bound. In other words, more reliant on ghost work which is the sort of work which reveals cracks in the system. It’s these cracks we need to repair to preserve human dignity.

Photo by Kirill Sharkovski on Unsplash