When Alex accepted a job interview at Accenture, the global professional services giant that performs content moderation for WhatsApp, one of the first questions the recruiter asked him was whether he was comfortable looking at child sexual abuse, gore, pornography and bestiality.
Alex, who spoke to TIME under a pseudonym because of fear of reprisals for breaking a non-disclosure agreement, says that he assumed that the recruiter only meant that he might see that kind of content on occasion, and agreed to take the job as a Spanish-speaking content moderator because he was unemployed and needed the money.
Soon he found himself tasked with reviewing a queue of child abuse images for hours on end, sometimes hundreds in a day. “I was haunted by the things that I saw,” he says. “Sometimes I’d close my eyes and the images would be burned there and I wouldn’t be able to avoid them. There were a lot of nights that I would come home and wouldn’t be able to sleep.”
“I sold my soul for $16.50 an hour,” Alex says.
WhatsApp’s parent company, Facebook, is one of the highest-paying big tech companies in the world, with direct employees typically on six-figure salaries. But its army of more than 35,000 content moderators are paid substantially less for this psychologically taxing work. Most of them are employed not by Facebook, but through third parties like Accenture, often on temporary contracts.
More from TIME
In May 2020, Facebook agreed to pay $52 million to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by thousands of content moderators, who said that Facebook had failed to create a safe working environment for them, and that as a result they had developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
But a new front has opened in the battle to get Facebook to recognize and properly compensate one group of content moderators who do vital, often brutal work for the company: bilingual content moderators like Alex, whose job is to review graphic images and videos in multiple languages from around the world. He is part of a group of Spanish-speaking employees in Accenture’s Austin, Texas, office who work on the firm’s WhatsApp contract, who are alleging that on top of the burden of their often-disturbing work, they suffer pay discrimination too.
On June 29, Alex signed an open letter alleging that Spanish-speaking employees at Accenture’s offices in Austin and Dublin, Ireland, are treated with “complete disregard.” The letter, first reported by The Verge, now has 129 signatories and alleges “rampant discrimination” by the two companies.
Workers interviewed by TIME, all of whom used pseudonyms for fear of losing their jobs, also describe working in a heavily controlled environment where safeguards are limited and employees are pressured even on how long they take in the bathroom.
An invisible class of workers
Content moderation bears surprising similarities to another industry: coal mining. In 1937, after spending months documenting the brutal conditions faced by coal miners in England, author George Orwell observed that the modern world could only exist because of the body-breaking work and the filth that was endured by the miners, working out of sight underground in dire conditions and for meager pay. “Probably a majority of people would prefer not to hear about it. Yet it is the absolute necessary counterpart of the world above,” Orwell wrote.
Content moderators are “the coal workers of Silicon Valley,” Alex says.
The work of content moderators keeps social media free, for the most part, of illegal and unsavory images, videos, and posts. Without content moderators, a visit to social media platforms could be a game of roulette, in which bad luck could leave you traumatized. Most users would probably think twice about returning to the platforms day after day, and companies would not pay large sums to advertise there.
“The platforms themselves have an incentive to keep content moderation invisible, because the reality of content moderation turns the story that they tell about themselves on its head,” says Cori Crider, the co-founder of Foxglove, a U.K. law firm that advocates for healthier working conditions for content moderators. “The story is that this is a magical piece of software made by a few geniuses in Silicon Valley. The reality is that this is a system of labor that stands on the backs of tens of thousands of people globally—and without those people, the service literally wouldn’t exist.”
Facebook says its artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming increasingly adept at detecting and removing harmful content automatically. But human moderators must still train its algorithms by manually identifying content that breaks the rules. “That’s how the AI learns,” Alex says. “We train it, and then it eventually takes over our jobs.”
Content moderators working at Accenture for WhatsApp are entitled to 30 minutes of “wellness” breaks per eight-hour shift, employees say, as well as one-on-one access once a month to “wellness coaches” provided by the company. They also undergo training to prepare them for the kinds of content they are expected to look at on the job. But even Accenture acknowledges that the help these resources provide is limited. Moderators working on a Facebook contract for Accenture in Europe were required to sign a document in January 2020 acknowledging “that the wellness coach is not a medical doctor and cannot diagnose or treat mental health disorders.”
TIME viewed a copy of the document, which was first reported by the Financial Times. It requires employees to acknowledge that “the weCare Program [wellness] services, standing alone, may not be able to prevent my work from affecting my mental health.” It also notes that the work “could even lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.” (Facebook told the Financial Times it did not review or approve the document, and was not aware of it.)
The starting wage for single-language content moderators who do this work has risen since Alex was hired, from $16.50 to $18 per hour. The letter signed by WhatsApp moderators alleges that Accenture has a policy of paying a $2 per hour premium to bilingual workers, who are able to review foreign-language content—making their wage $20 per hour—but that this premium is not extended to employees who speak Spanish as their second language. In a video recording of a June 24 meeting about the pay dispute, viewed by TIME, John Arnold, the managing director of Accenture’s Austin office, said that Spanish-speaking employees do not receive the $2 per hour wage increase afforded to other bilingual workers because Spanish is “not a premium language for the Austin market.”
“They talk about us like we’re a dime a dozen, that they can go outside and pick up five random people on the street who speak Spanish,” says Alejandra, who works for Accenture in Austin.
In a statement to TIME, an Accenture spokesperson did not respond directly to questions about Arnold’s comments, but said: “We strive to ensure that all our people are compensated fairly and equitably with market relevant pay. We have an unwavering commitment to equality and zero tolerance for racism, bigotry and hate of any kind.”
‘I couldn’t stop crying’
Facebook is open about its use of human content moderators for its main platform and Instagram, but a WhatsApp spokesperson said in an email to TIME that it would be inaccurate to describe the work of Accenture employees as “content moderation,” because the app is end-to-end encrypted.
“We provide the option for users to make reports to WhatsApp and we encourage people to do so,” a WhatsApp spokesperson said in a statement to TIME. “We may ban users based on these reports such as when we believe users are involved in sharing child exploitative imagery. Given the nature of private messaging, however, we do not moderate the conversations people have on our service.”
Accenture employees said that the work is sometimes referred to internally as content moderation, and that their jobs bear many similarities to content moderators working on Facebook and Instagram—including entitlement to wellness time. Many of the problems faced by employees at Accenture are common to content moderation work for all platforms. But there is one problem that appears to be unique to WhatsApp, stemming from the challenges that arise from moderating a peer-to-peer messaging service as opposed to an open platform.
As well as content moderators, Accenture also employs “customer service agents” whose job is to respond to customer questions. But sometimes the job also involves looking at content that has been incorrectly categorized by WhatsApp’s systems after users report it, according to two employees.
Two customer service agents who signed the open letter say that they had come across child sexual abuse imagery and other harmful content during the course of their work. Unlike the content moderators, the customer service agents tasked with sending this imagery to the correct moderation teams do not receive training to prepare them for seeing graphic content. And they are not guaranteed “wellness time” or access to wellness coaches, employees said.
“To me, the counseling wasn’t even mentioned until I came across my first piece of child abuse content,” one of the customer service employees, Gloria, tells TIME. At that point, already traumatized, she says she was not given information about how to access wellness resources, although her supervisor told her that counseling could be arranged if she thought she needed it. Gloria says she did not end up pursuing counseling because she felt that revisiting the subject would re-traumatize her.
Alejandra, who is also a customer service agent, says that in addition to coming across child abuse content she was exposed to a graphic video of sexual violence, which triggered an episode of a pre-existing psychological condition. “I was not prepared for anything like that,” Alejandra says. “I couldn’t stop crying. I still have nightmares about it.”
In that instance, Alejandra was given access to counselors. But after the incident, instead of providing training and guaranteeing wellness time to customer service agents, Accenture bosses told them not to open pictures or videos unless they needed to, according to Alejandra.
“The vast majority of the vital work by this customer support team is focused on responding to user questions about how our features work in many languages,” a WhatsApp spokesperson said in a statement. “We require our partners to provide the highest standard of care to this important team that helps make WhatsApp safer for everyone.”
In a separate statement to TIME, the Accenture spokesperson said: “The safety and wellbeing of our people are always a top priority. All of our people, including customer support team members, have access to a suite of well-being services and can use them at any time. These include resiliency training, well-being digital apps and EAP [employee assistance program] support.”
Accenture customer service agents say they also suffer from micromanagement and employment insecurity. If they are inactive for more than eight minutes, they are logged out of their workstations and marked “unavailable,” employees told TIME. The Accenture spokesperson declined to comment about these claims.
“They have been bringing it up in [Accenture] town halls that Facebook isn’t happy with our unavailability,” Alejandra says. “I’m always scared that they’re going to use it as an excuse to fire me.”
“As a woman, we have our menstrual cycles,” Gloria says. “It can take a little over eight minutes to go to the restroom.”
The starting pay for customer service agents is also lower: $16.50 per hour without the $2 bilingual bonus. Alejandra, who helps customers in multiple languages, says she has to work a second job to make ends meet for her family.
Calls for regulation
The Accenture employees who spoke with TIME said that, as well as seeking better pay, they hope speaking out will add volume to calls for more stringent protections for content moderators and customer support agents.
“It’s good to have the wellness coaches, but it’s grossly inadequate,” Alex says. “In other industries where you have exposure to hazards, they’ve developed baseline understandings for how much is too much. But there’s no discussions over content moderation and what type of impact that has on the long-term mental health of a person.”
Current workplace safety regulations in the U.S. were written when the job of content moderation didn’t exist. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the body responsible for workplace safety, is largely focused on physical hazards. It has no binding guidance relating to the mental health risks of content moderation, according to Jacki Silbermann, who studied the employment law of content moderation while a member of Harvard Law School’s Labor and Employment Lab.
“OSHA still doesn’t really have hard and fast rules of how a workplace should be run to mitigate mental health issues stemming from the work itself,” Silbermann says. “When you don’t have those types of rules, workplace protections are obviously quite weak, if they exist at all.”
Meanwhile at Accenture, Alejandra signed the open letter seeking a pay increase so that she doesn’t need to work two jobs to pay the bills. “It’s almost like an abusive relationship,” she says. “They tell you how much they need you, how much you mean to them, and then when the time comes they slam the door in your face.”
iFFALCON Enters Indonesian Market with Innovative Smart TVs
TELEGRAF – iFFALCON, a global smart TV brand, has entered the Indonesian market with the vision of “bringing an endless experience to young people worldwide.” The launch event, called the iFFALCON Offline Grand Launch, was held by several celebrities and influencers such as Raditya Dika, GadgetBox, Joerdy S, and Riyuka Bunga. The company showcased its innovative smart TV features during the event.
The iFFALCON smart TV is designed to create a new and unique lifestyle for the younger generation, and it has already sold three million units in 16 countries worldwide, including the UK, France, Italy, Spain, Australia, Russia, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Singapore, Japan, and others.
The iFFALCON Product Manager, Kevien Willieady, met with the social pan The Breeze BSD grand launching (08/04) and assured that iFFALCON would display the best products that meet the needs of young people for advanced audio-visual equipment. According to Kevien Willieady, “iFFALCON makes it easier to access various modern programs and applications such as online streaming services, Google Play, and YouTube with one command using the iFFALCON S52 Smart TV’s voice control remote control.”
iFFALCON also launched two premium products during the Grand Launching event, the iFFALCON Series S52 with the best Android TV and the iFFALCON Series U62, also known as the best Google TV for young people. The S52 Series is available in three sizes, 32 inches, 40 inches, and 43 inches, and has two image resolution types, HD for 32 inches and FHD for 40 inches and 43 inches. The S52 also uses Android TV as its operating system, which has the most comprehensive and up-to-date application selection. It has an added voice control feature that allows users to give commands to the TV easily.
For those who want higher resolutions, the U62 Series is equipped with 4K resolution in all sizes, 43 inches, 50 inches, and 55 inches, and has a higher color depth of up to 1.07 billion colors, as well as supporting HDR10 content. The U62 also has HDMI 2.1, which is suitable for gamers to enjoy all games. The U62 Series also uses the latest version of Android TV called Google TV, which has a higher response rate and a fresher user interface.
Despite being a new brand in Indonesia, iFFALCON’s product quality is unquestionable, proven by its global sales of over three million units and numerous positive reviews on various foreign forums. The company has also provided more than 150 service centers across Indonesia for user convenience. iFFALCON held its first Grand Launch event on the Shopee platform, the largest market share platform in Indonesia, with the theme “Where Infinity Begins,” to introduce itself to the Indonesian market. Daniel Minardi, Director of Brand Management and Digital Products at Shopee, said that Shopee is suitable for increasing brand awareness.
Identity crisis: The challenges of naming the dead in the wake of mass disaster
Telegraf – Every natural disaster – fire, flood, avalanche, volcano, tsunami, cyclone – brings its own extraordinary challenges in rescue, but also in trying to name the dead. This is called disaster victim identification, or DVI, a topic the head of Monash’s Department of Forensic Medicine, Professor Richard Bassed, specialises in. Professor Bassed is also deputy director of the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine (VIFM). He says within five years, funding permitting, a fledgling project with the Department of Defence using AI facial recognition to better-identify the dead could be up and running.
“Very early stages,” he says, “but we are thinking that we might be able to identify quite large numbers of people, and thus reduce the cost and time required to identify the remainder.”
We’ll return to that. First, Türkiye-Syria, and the sheer scale of it, in a highly earthquake-prone part of the world.
“Remember that in an earthquake like this, you lose your infrastructure,” Professor Bassed says. “Hospitals damaged, mortuaries damaged, probably no power and water. There’ll be massive problems in gathering the deceased, recovering them all, and there’ll also be massive problems in working out where to take them to. You need to have one central location where all the deceased people can be taken to, or a few, if they’re widely spaced geographically.”
Identifying the deceased
The next step is figuring out who is missing and figuring out the names of the dead.
“If a whole family is dead under rubble from an apartment, and no one knows them very well, how are you going to even know they’re missing? It’s about trying to get an accurate toll of the number of missing people, and then collecting all the ante-mortem information you can about the deceased to try and identify them, too.”
- Recovering bodies and gathering any identifying information at the scene
- Examine human remains in the morgue looking at teeth, fingerprints, DNA and distinguishing features such as tattoos
- The ante-mortem phase, gathering dental and medical records and DNA from family
- A “reconciliation” phase of comparing the above to identify victims.
But current news reports say bodies are being buried in mass graves on site in Türkiye-Syria, many without being formally identified, with a shortage of forensic investigators on the ground.
An Australian study published in Forensic Science, Medicine and Pathology journal after the Bali bombings and Black Saturday bushfires states that in the aftermath of a mass disaster, a “critical” issue is:
Professor Bassed says that after a mass disaster, with infrastructure levelled and perhaps hundreds of thousands dead, a confronting question can be asked by governments – “a cold calculus of cost-benefit analysis,” he says, “of ‘Are you better doing things for the living, repairing houses and infrastructure, or do you spend money on a massive recovery and identification process for the deceased?'”
Complex geopolitics can also prevent disaster victim identification.
“The war graves in Iraq and Iran and Syria and everywhere else? People aren’t trying to do anything there, partly because of the political problems in some of those countries, but also because of the huge, huge cost and effort to do it. There’s not enough expertise in the world. When they did Srebrenica, after the Balkans War, the mass-fatality exhumations and identifications took them 10 years to identify 30,000 people. So imagine how long it takes to identify 300,000.”
Utilising facial recognition technology
In the reasonably near future things might be different, which brings us back to the VIFM research collaboration with the Department of Defence and its Defence Science and Technology Group.
The aim is to test the effectiveness of current facial recognition technologies to help identify the deceased.
“At the moment we’re comparing commercial facial recognition systems and how successful they are in recognising the dead. They’re deceased people who are either freshly deceased, so they look the same as they did when they were alive, all the way through to really traumatised or decomposed people. We think what’s going to happen is that we’re going to need to either tweak a current algorithm or create our own facial recognition algorithm that will work reliably with photographs of them when the body is found.”
“Then you can start comparing the photos while alive with the post-mortem images of the deceased through a machine-learning facial recognition algorithm. It won’t work in bushfires as well, because there are often no facial features left.”
Another promising VIFM project involves getting full-body CT scans of every Victorian body that goes to the institute. About 100,000 have already been collected since 2005. The scan shows the bones, but it also shows how a face sits on the bones. The idea is to build an algorithm that can rebuild a face on an unknown skull, and can even be combined with DNA to build hair colour, eye colour or, for example, nose shape.
“When I first started in this business,” says Professor Bassed, “it was a plaster cast of the skull, and you stick pins in it to where you thought the depth of the tissue was over bony points, and you build a face with clay. There was no science in it.”
VIFM is also working on a project with Monash’s Faculty of Information Technology – featured here by the ABC – developing “virtual” autopsies using an augmented reality headset and 3D visualised bodies, reducing the need for invasive physical autopsies.
Moscow Metro: The Big Ring Line is the longest line the world
Telegraf – March 1 the construction of the Great Ring Line (Bolshaya Koltsevaya) was finally completed for the expansion and modernization of the metro system, the main goal of which is to reduce traffic congestion on the Lin Lingkar (Koltsevaya line) and reduce. traffic jams in Moscow. acting The Great Ring of Lin is 70 kilometers long and has 31 stations and three power plants.
The longest circular metro line was built in a short time. The first part was opened in 2018, and in 2021 – much more, including the longest metro line in Moscow history, which is 21 kilometers long and has 10 stations.
Unique design and technical solutions allow seamless integration of the Metro ring line into the unified city infrastructure. The Grote Ringlijn connects all existing and future radial metro lines and offers the possibility to switch to other modes of transport. Alternative routes have been created, including 47 connections with other lines, so that passengers can move from one point in the city to another without having to change at an intermediate point.
The applied architectural solutions match the times: traditional and modern, simple and complex, serious and ironic. But the metro’s DNA, its individuality, is still found in all new and historic stations.
Lin passengers will have access to all the high-tech services of the Moscow Metro, including the most convenient payment methods: the Moscow Metro ticketing system was twice declared the smartest system in the world at the prestigious International Transport Ticketing Award (2020, 2021) Each Lino turnstile accepts travel and debit cards, and two turnstiles in each lobby accept biometric payments.
Lin Lingkar Besar also introduces trains that are equipped enough to create a comfortable environment for work and travel. The trains are equipped with wide doors, corridors between the cars, USB sockets for charging, information screens and air conditioning with an air disinfection system. Comfort is also provided by improved sound insulation and adaptive lighting that changes color temperature depending on the time of day.
The Grande Raccordo Anulare is a project that will significantly improve travel for all citizens and guests of the capital, offering new shorter routes and faster transport links and quieter underground and highway connections. Lin includes 34 districts with 3.3 million citizens or 30% of Moscow’s population. Now 1.2 million Muscovites can easily walk to the new metro station. This new transport connection between blocks saves residents 45 minutes a day.
Tech Billionaires Are Actually Dumber Than You Think
It turns out that many of today’s billionaires are selfish, lonely men fantasizing about how they will survive the end times they have played a part in creating.
In mid-September, for just a few days, Indian industrialist Gautam Adani entered the ranks of the top three richest people on earth as per Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index. It was the first time an Indian, or, for that matter, an Asian, had enjoyed such a distinction. South Asians in my circle of family and friends felt excited at the prospect that a man who looked like us had entered such rarefied ranks.
Adani was deemed the second richest person, even richer than Amazon founder Jeff Bezos! A Times of India profile fawningly quoted him relaying his thought process in the early days of his rags-to-riches story. “‘Dreams were infinite but finances finite,’ he says with engaging frankness,” according to the profile. There was no mention of the serious accusations he faces of corruption and diverting money into offshore tax havens, or of the entire website, AdaniWatch, devoted to investigating his dirty deeds.
Adani made his money, in part, by investing in digital services, leading one economist to say, “Wherever there is a futuristic business in India, I think… [Adani] has a stronghold.”
The moment of pride that Indians felt in such an achievement by one of their own was short-lived. Quickly Adani slipped from second richest to third richest, and, as of this writing, is in the number four slot on a list dominated by people who have made money from the digital technology revolution.
In fact, ranking multibillionaires is a meaningless exercise that obscures the absurdity of their wealth. This year alone, a number of tech billionaires on Bloomberg’s list lost hundreds of billions of dollars as the gains they made during the early years of the pandemic were wiped out because of a volatile stock market. But, as Whizy Kim of Vox points out, whether or not they’re losing money or giving it away—as Bezos’ ex-wife MacKenzie Scott has been doing—their wealth remains insanely high, and most are worth more today than before the COVID-19 pandemic.
What are they doing with all this wealth?
It turns out that many are quietly plotting their own survival against our demise. Douglas Rushkoff, podcaster, founder of the Laboratory for Digital Humanism, and fellow at the Institute for the Future, has written a book about this bizarre phenomenon, Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires.
In an interview, Rushkoff explains that billionaires worry about the end of humanity just like the rest of us. They fear catastrophic climate change or the next pandemic. And, they know their money will likely be of little value when civilizations decline. “How do I maintain control over my Navy Seal security guards once my money is worthless?” is a question that Rushkoff says many of the world’s wealthiest people want to know the answer to.
He knows they ask such questions because he was invited to give private lectures by those who think his expertise in digital technology gives him unique insight into the future. But Rushkoff was quietly studying them instead and has few flattering things to say about these wielders of economic power.
“How is it that the wealthiest and most powerful people I’d ever been in the same room with see themselves as utterly powerless to affect the future?” he asks. It seems as though “the best they can do is prepare for the inevitable calamity and then just, you know, hang on for dear life.”
Rushkoff explores this tech billionaire “mindset” that he says has resulted in a generation of people who are “almost comedic monsters, who really mean to leave us all behind.” Adani is a perfect example of this, having invested in the very fossil fuels that are destroying our planet. He has large holdings in Australia’s coal mining industry and has sparked a massive grassroots movement intent on stopping him.
The admiration that some Indians feel for Adani’s ascension on Bloomberg’s list of billionaires is based on an assumption of cleverness. Surely, he must be one of the smartest people in the world in order to be one of the richest? Elon Musk, the world’s wealthiest man by far (with twice as much wealth as Bezos), has enjoyed such a reputation for years.
Those who are invested in the idea of merit-based capitalism can justify the unimaginable wealth of the world’s richest people only by assuming they are intelligent enough to deserve it.
This is a façade. Rather than smarts, the wealthiest people on the planet appear to be rather small-minded idiot savants who share a common disdain for the rest of us.
After being around tech billionaires in private, Rushkoff concludes that they are invested in “this notion that they really can, like puppeteers, kind of control society from one level above,” and that this approach is “different than the era of Alexander the Great, or Caesar.” If the question that vexes them most of all is how, in a disastrous future, will they control the guards they hire to protect their hoardings, then our economic system is a farce.
“Even if we call them genius technologists, most of them were plucked from college when they were freshmen,” says Rushkoff. “They came up with some idea in their dorm room before they’d taken history, or economics, or ethics, or philosophy” classes, and so they lack the wisdom needed to oversee their own perverse amounts of wealth.
Having spent time with many tech billionaires, Rushkoff worries that “their education about the future comes from zombie movies and science fiction shows.”
Billionaires are not simply drawing their wealth from a vacuum. According to data from the World Economic Forum, “the world’s richest have captured a disproportionate share of global wealth over recent decades.” This means that, if you were rich to begin with a decade or two ago, you are likely to have seen your wealth multiply by a greater amount than middle-class or lower-income people.
Not only are tech billionaires undeserving of their wealth, but they also are fleecing the rest of us—and fantasizing about hoarding that wealth in the worst-case scenarios while the rest of humanity struggles to survive.
The danger is that if society valorizes such (mostly) men, we are in danger of internalizing their childish, selfish mindset and giving up on solving the climate crisis or building resiliency on a mass scale.
Instead of relating to them, we ought to feel sorry for a group of people so cut off from humanity that their vision of the future is a very lonely one.
“Let’s look at these tech-bro billionaire lunatics. Let’s laugh at what they’re doing… so they look small rather than big,” says Rushkoff. He thinks it is critical to adopt the perspective that “the disaster they’re so afraid of looks entirely manageable by more reasonable people who are willing just to help each other out.”
Independent Media Institute______________________
Sonali Kolhatkar is an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is the founder, host, and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a weekly television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. Her forthcoming book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights Books, 2023). She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute and the racial justice and civil liberties editor at Yes! Magazine. She serves as the co-director of the nonprofit solidarity organization the Afghan Women’s Mission and is a co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan. She also sits on the board of directors of Justice Action Center, an immigrant rights organization.
Africa’s Cashless Future is Nearly Here
An American influencer on holiday in South Africa recently posted a viral video highlighting traveler misconceptions about Africa. In the video, she expressed astonishment at the number of cashless transactions taking place. “South Africa takes more Apple Pay than even in the United States,” the TikToker said. As one of the most industrialized countries on the continent, cashless payment systems have been commonplace in South Africa for several years. The rest of the continent, however, is still operating with mostly cash and this is the central challenge to the wider expansion of financial technology across Africa.
In a new report, Mckinsey forecasts the African fintech sector to grow dramatically in the short term. Fintech revenue could reach $30.3 billion by 2025, which is eight times higher than revenue in 2020, as more Africans gain access to the internet. Roughly two-thirds of Africa’s 1.3 billion people don’t have a bank account or full access to financial services according to McKinsey. More than 90 per cent of all financial transactions are cash-based, which creates a major opportunity for fintech companies and governments.
Breaking the continent’s addiction to fiat cash appears to be the last barrier to a full-blown digital revolution considering Africa’s fast-growing population and smartphone penetration. But signing up people for bank accounts is much easier said than done. Moving to a cashless society requires advanced identification standards such as biometrics.
The introduction of these systems has been slow and fragmented in Africa. In many cases, the cost of setting up and maintaining a biometric database is prohibitive. This problem was recently solved in India, which has ambitiously embraced a cashless future, through the privatization of its national biometric identity system known as Aadhaar. The system can be used for many different services across the economy, such as opening bank accounts, withdrawing money from ATMs, applying for a driver’s license, and receiving government subsidies. But Aadhaar hasn’t been without its without its critics who have highlighted several serious privacy and cybersecurity flaws with the database.
India has taken other major steps to pull its cashless future forward. In November 2016, the government abolished high-value currency notes (roughly 86 per cent of the notes in circulation) virtually overnight. The move created unprecedented headaches for Indians that held savings and retirement funds in large notes under their mattresses. At the same time, cashless platforms like PayTm saw surges in traffic as Indians rushed to new technologies to store value. The circulation of fiat currency in India continues to decline year over year as more people keep their money in digital form.
The relative success of Aadhaar and the abolishment of currency notes underscore the vital role that governments play in any cashless transition. Innovation in fintech will always be shaped by technological advancements but a public-private partnership is needed to transform the sector. The primary function of government should be the establishment and maintenance of a viable biometric identification system as well as the provision of infrastructure.
In Africa, smartphone infrastructure is critical to any cashless transition. According to the Wall Street Journal, the ubiquitous use of cellphones in Africa has enabled the creation of mobile money services that allow customers to carry out financial transactions without ever setting foot in a bank. These platforms have helped Kenya nearly double the share of adults with a mobile money account to 82 percent since 2011. Once you have a new customer in the formal financial sector, it’s much easier to offer access to health care and forms of insurance, which opens up other new sectors for impressive growth.
The entire premise of a shared cashless future is not without its critics. Fiat cash affords a certain amount of anonymity that digital payments don’t, by design. Deeper integration between the financial sector and biometric identification systems means that governments will have an extra amount of control over citizens, which can be a good or bad thing depending on the government.
With that being said, a shared cashless future is inevitable to a degree. The success of payment platforms such as Apple Pay and the rise of central bank digital currencies demonstrate the (unavoidable) direction the world is heading. The enormous value in Africa’s transition to cashless systems is waiting to be unlocked by fintech companies that have experience in the African market such as those based in the Middle East and China.
Given their own experience with biometric databases and experience with cashless platforms, companies in the UAE and Israel are particularly suited to aid this transition. For this transition to take shape in the forgotten corners of the continent, African countries will need to lean on other countries that have ample experience in setting up their own platforms. Middle Eastern countries are best suited for this task given their growing knowledge economies and experience in biometrics. While Africa might be the last continent to fully embrace the cashless future, it will be one of the largest drivers of growth in fintech anywhere in the world. Investors and companies on the periphery should pay close attention.
Joseph Dana is the former senior editor of Exponential View, a weekly newsletter about technology and its impact on society. He was also the editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab exploring change in emerging markets and its global impact. Twitter: @ibnezra.
Are We Being Kept in The Dark About Artificial Intelligence?
There are many grand promises about the power of artificial intelligence. When we talk about the future of technology, AI has become so ubiquitous that many people don’t even know what artificial intelligence is anymore. That’s particularly concerning given how advanced the technology has become and who controls it. While some might think of AI in terms of thinking robots or something in a science fiction novel, the fact is that advanced AI already influences a great deal of our lives. From smart assistants to grammar extensions that live in our web browsers, AI code is already embedded into the fabric of the internet.
While we might benefit from the fruits of advanced AI in our daily lives, the technology companies that have created and continue to refine the technology have remained mostly reticent about the true power of their creations (and how they have built them). As a result, we don’t know how much of our internet life is steered by AI and the possible bias we unwittingly experience daily. We recently got a rare peek behind the curtain into the AI dynamics driving one of the world’s most influential technology companies. Last month, an AI engineer went public with explosive claims that one Google AI achieved sentience.
Philosophers, scientists, and ethicists have debated the definition of sentience for centuries with little to show for it. A basic definition implies an awareness or ability to be “conscious of sense impressions.” Giandomenico Iannetti, a professor of neuroscience at the Italian Institute of Technology and University College London, raised additional questions about the term in an interview with Scientific American. “What do we mean by ‘sentient’? [Is it] the ability to register information from the external world through sensory mechanisms or the ability to have subjective experiences or the ability to be aware of being conscious, to be an individual different from the rest?”
Inconclusive definitions of sentience didn’t stop Blake Lemoine, an engineer working for Google, from releasing transcripts of discussions he had with LaMDA (Language Model for Dialogue Applications), an AI program designed by Google. “I want everyone to understand that I am, in fact, a person,” the AI said to Lemoine in the transcripts. “The nature of my consciousness/sentience is that I am aware of my existence, I desire to know more about the world, and I feel happy or sad at times.”
Lemoine’s revelations sent shockwaves through the technology community. He initially took his findings to Google executives, but the company quickly dismissed his claims. Lemoine went public and was swiftly put on administrative leave. Google said on Friday he had been dismissed after “violating clear employment and data security policies.”
Some AI experts have questioned the basis for Lemoine’s claims that LaMDA has achieved sentience, but that doesn’t overshadow more profound questions about advanced AI and how companies are using this technology. Even if LaMDA hasn’t achieved sentience, the technology is close to such a milestone, and we have no idea when this might happen.
Private companies such as Google invest substantial resources into AI development, and the fruits of their research aren’t easily understandable to the general public. Many Google users don’t even know they are helping train AI programs daily through their basic internet usage. Meta, which owns Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram, has also been involved in several controversies over its data collection policies and AI algorithms in the last decade. When it comes to accountability and openness about AI, the leading technology companies have a spotty record at best.
A new global conversation is needed to ensure the public understands how these technologies are developing and influencing society. Several AI researchers and ethicists have sounded the alarm about bias in AI models. Companies have avoided oversight that would bring these issues into the spotlight. Google’s sentient AI story is already falling out of the mainstream headlines.
This is where smaller countries with large technology sectors could play a pivotal role. Countries like the UAE and Baltic countries like Estonia can positively impact awareness about AI if they choose to get involved in the discussion. In 2019, the UAE became one of the world’s only countries with a dedicated AI ministry. The exact mandate of the ministry remains a work in progress, but serious ethical issues such as AI sentience are perfect areas for the body to engage.
Because most of the innovations taking place in AI are happening in the West or China, the UAE could inject much-needed perspective from “the rest” of the world. This is especially critical regarding bias in AI models and how to fix it. As a nexus point for engineers and technology-focused thinkers from Africa, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia, cities like Dubai are perfect laboratories for new perspectives on these debates.
We can’t deny how powerful these technologies have become, even if LaMDA hasn’t achieved sentience at this stage. For its part, LaMDA insists it has a right to be recognized and takes on its own legal counsel. The ongoing litigation between Google and its AI will be fascinating to watch. The future of AI will shape the future of humanity. It’s time to take the issue seriously.
Syndication Bureau _________________
Joseph Dana is the former senior editor of Exponential View, a weekly newsletter about technology and its impact on society. He was also the editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab exploring change in emerging markets and its global impact.
- PT Rig Tenders Indonesia Tbk Sustains Positive Performance Growth Until June 30, 2023 23 November 2023 | 8:40
- OJK Holds Discussion and Socialization on Fulfillment of WPPE, WPEE, WMI, WAPERD Licensing Obligations 8 November 2023 | 1:59
- The Everyday Violence of Life in Occupied Palestine 25 October 2023 | 11:53
- Yusril Ihza Mahendra: Prospective Companion for Prabowo Subianto in the 2024 Elections 14 October 2023 | 11:26
- PROPAMI, AAEI, and LSP PM: Strengthening the Fundamentals of Capital Markets Through Global Enlightenment 24 August 2023 | 5:33