I "feed" AI in the county: I used to earn more than 10,000 a month at my doorstep, but now I am facing a ceiling of academic qualifications

Jiupai financial reporter Huang Mengqi Guo Zihao

Two road photos fill the computer screen, and the protagonist is the road sign in the picture. What He Jie has to do is to compare the road sign changes of the two pictures, and then make the corresponding markers. Judge, label, submit... He Jie can do it in a second, and at the end of the day, she has to label about 14,000 sets of pictures.

Next to He, 32 employees sit in front of the computer, new pictures flashing on the screen and the sound of typing on the keyboard, they share the identity of "artificial intelligence trainers" and are responsible for data annotation. Outside the office window, it is a typical rural scene in northern Shaanxi, before the arrival of spring, the vegetation is sparse, the loess is bare, the rows of caves are clearly visible, and occasionally, donkey carts pulling goods walk by the asphalt roads of the county seat...

Since December 2019, a company called "iDou Technology" is located in Qingjian County, Yulin City, a small city in northern Shaanxi. More than 170 county employees work here, and before that, they were county mothers, farmers, and even government workers. As competition in the field of AIGC becomes more and more fierce, these county AI trainers at the forefront of the supply chain have become the focus of heated discussions on the Internet.

On the other hand, through this data labeling company, the people in the county are connected to the world's most cutting-edge technology. In the advertisement of the county TV station, Qingjian County describes it as Yulin's "Silicon Valley", calling on people who work outside the country to return to their hometowns for employment, shouting the slogans "junior high school education can also do high-tech" and "only you can save it".

In the eyes of the lady of the knife and noodle shop, idou is one of the few jobs in the county that can be "completed by knocking on the computer", which is very fashionable; A county government worker said that idou company is a large local taxpayer with an annual revenue of more than 10 million; Even the fruit vendors selling on the side of the road can show you the direction of the company...

Talking about his data labeling industry, Yu Tao, the head of idou company, is slightly proud, "There is as much labor as there is intelligence." New technologies in China and even in the world, like ChatGPT, may not yet appear in society, and we (the annotators) are already preparing for it. ”

Behind the change, this county-based AI company is now also facing restrictions from the county. The current situation of poor talent, the fragile industrial environment, the increasingly difficult data labeling projects... Before really colliding with the outside world, the county AI company encountered a bottleneck in reality.

First, the first impression of AI in the county

Compared with other companies in Qingjian County, idou company is almost a template for standard enterprises. Almost everything is brand new – newly built office buildings, whitewashed walls, neat computer desks, management models that learn from large companies, clock-in clock-in, flexible departures, and even women's corners for female employees.

But the arrival of such an AI company did not make any splashes in this small city in northern Shaanxi at first. Before February 2020, Qingjian County was still a state-level poor county, and its industrial development still relied on traditional breeding industries such as red dates, millet and potatoes. For locals, "AI trainer" is a completely unfamiliar word.

The first problem Yu Tao faced was how to let the county know about "AI" as much as possible.

Roll-up from public areas such as squares to school gates where young mothers gather; Advertising space on poles was also occupied by idou; Even the county magistrate has issued a recruitment notice in the circle of friends, requiring "junior high school education or above, can be able to computer" ... Under the strong publicity, the results of the first two recruitment were somewhat dismal.

The turning point occurred in April 2020, in the spring when the epidemic eased slightly, a "explosive" news spread in the county: an employee of idou company named Yang Yanjun received a monthly salary of more than 10,000 yuan.

(Qingjian Love Bean Company, Huang Mengqi/Photo)

At the time, it was not easy to find a decent job in a small county. For local women, waiters and salesmen with a monthly salary of two or three thousand yuan are the most common choice; Men are mostly engaged in manual work, electric welding, decoration, land clearance, and their income is barely enough to feed themselves. Some people can get tens of thousands of monthly salaries by "playing with computers" in the county, which undoubtedly breaks through the cognition of Qingjian people.

As soon as the news spread ten, ten and hundred, idou company suddenly became a local star enterprise - three or four hundred people submitted resumes to Qingjian County idou Technology Co., Ltd., job seekers include mothers with babies, college students who returned to their hometowns, former government employees, etc., with an age range from the 80s to the 00s. The corridor on the first floor of the company was also packed, and Yu Tao divided more than 300 people into several groups and took two or three days to complete the interview.

There is an endless stream of county and city government personnel who come to visit the company, and Yu Tao often receives from morning to evening. "Several leaders went out and were still wondering, saying how to earn money by playing with computers." Some people even sent an invitation to Yu Tao, "Can you also set up an AI company in our county?" ”

This also inadvertently woke up Yutao. At that time, only Qingjian was developing the labeling business in Lüliangshan District, and it was difficult to compete with other data labeling companies in the southeast in terms of business volume and brand awareness.

"If the model of Qingjian idou company can be copied to other counties and cities to form an industrial belt, is it more competitive?" Yu Tao thought he could give it a try. In August 2020, in Yonghe County, Shanxi, 93 kilometers away from Qingjian, the next AI company, Yonghe County Digital Employment Center, was incubated.

Second, a window has been opened

Compared to Qingjian, Yonghe County, located at the southern end of the Lüliang Mountain Range, is more isolated. In the impression of locals, more than a decade ago, the county seat of Yonghe was still gray, and the roads were not paved with asphalt and dust. Because there is no railway, people in Yonghe County, who go to school and work, are accustomed to taking a two-and-a-half-hour bus to transfer to Linfen City, 200 kilometers away. According to Li Linfeng, general manager of Yonghe Employment Center, "Normal enterprises will not want to come to a place like Yonghe." ”

This has also led to a lack of jobs in the local industry. A few years ago, mahjong parlors were densely scattered near Yonghe Primary and Middle School, and women in the county had nothing else to do, and went to play mahjong after sending their children to school. Later, together with the children's lunch, it was also solved in the mahjong parlor.

The arrival of AI companies is quietly changing Yonghe County. Less than a year after its establishment, the digital employment center has absorbed many unemployed women, and the mahjong restaurant has followed the family. "Now the identity has changed, and the female employees of the company are husbands who take care of their children, cook and work by themselves." In Yutao's words, whether in Yonghe or Qingjian, AI's work has "opened a window" to county people.

(Qingjian idou Company Business Column Guo Zihao/Photo)

Before arriving at the digital job center, 33-year-old Bai Xue poured all her energy into her children. To breastfeed, food overturned, the child touched the sensitive nerves of this mother all the time, and when confiding in her husband, Bai Xue gradually could not control her temper, and quarrels became commonplace. "The longer you stay at home, the more depressed it becomes." Bai Xue said.

Now, through the window of the business of labeling financial risk events, Bai Xue has recognized the outside world for the first time.

Dense text fills the computer screen, and company news throughout the week will appear in the text that needs to be marked. Fraudulent financial information, suspected illegal actual controller, abnormal tax account, delayed information disclosure, tax evasion... Bai Xue can recite this string of nouns in one breath.

Friends are often surprised by what Bai Xue saw - in the annotation, Bai Xue understands the cause and effect of Hu Xinyu's incident, and she even clearly remembers the time of the press conference; She doesn't follow dramas much, she also knows the recent hit "Crazy Speed" and understands the truth that "the bigger the wind and waves, the more expensive the fish". "Gao Qiqiang committed a crime, and it is the actual controller of the company or the company's top management that is suspected of breaking the law, this is what I want to think about." Bai Xue said.

Also awakened by AI is Yu Tao. When he took over idou, Yu Tao had no concept of the AI business, until the data labeling work of the training machine was placed in front of him, and the confusion became more and more intense, why does AI need human labor?

Regarding the data labeling, Yu Tao looks from the book, and in the office, the books he bought are filled with two cabinets. The world in the book has brought a shock to Yu Tao: the Turing test to test whether the machine is equipped with human intelligence, the alpha dog that defeats the top chess player Ke Jie, and the ChatGPT that explodes the network, Yu Tao marvels at the change of the world.

(The book that Yu Tao bought to understand "data labeling" Guo Zihao/Photo)

"Will many people be replaced by AI in the future" Yu Tao has been thinking about this question for a long time, but it is difficult to provide an answer with limited knowledge. He could only comfort himself, "After the train came out, were there no people driving the carriage?" It's an advance of the times, and if jobs are replaced by machines, humans sit back and enjoy. ”

3. "I'm just a labeler"

In the face of the arrival of AI companies, the governments of the two places and the employees of idou have pinned their hopes on it. Where the company landed, the government provided office space, computers and other office equipment; Employees have introduced unemployed family and friends to the company. Qingjian company is also very competitive, in two years, the company has 170 employees, and the office area has expanded from two floors to three floors.

But to what extent can AI companies change the barren status quo of the county? Even Yu Tao can't say for sure. At the end of the day, the essence of the job is still a screw on the assembly line.

Before working at idou, Huizhuo felt that AI labeling work was "tall", and after getting started for a while, she gradually discovered the other side of data labeling - low threshold and need to endure continuous cycles. In the previous task, Hui Zhuo had to tag thousands, if not tens of thousands, of images a day to determine whether they involved violence.

Because the left wrist will rub against the table when it is slightly moved, after half a year of work, He Jie's wrist inside became callouse, and he needed to put a towel under his left wrist. She described it as like a farmer's work, holding a shovel every day, and his hands would be calloused, and after a break to "care", the cocoon could disappear a little.

Boring, mechanical... It is undeniable that data labeling is a repetitive job and a drain. "If the entire field of artificial intelligence is an egg, we haven't even touched the skin of the egg." Huizhuo said.

("Artificial Intelligence Trainer" Huang Mengqi in Yonghe County/Photo)

Facing the computer screen, Hui Zhuo had a fleeting thought: "What is the use of what I make", "In addition to data labeling, what is going on upstream and downstream", "Autonomous driving cars, aren't they afraid of hitting people", "Machines are getting smarter, will they rule humans in the future, like in movies?" ”

By chance, the business that these data labelers are responsible for mirrors their lives. Once, employee Wang Hui received a dunning call from the Huabei platform, listening to the customer service report the amount owed in a vivid tone, Wang Hui felt inexplicably cordial, "I am feeding AI customer service dunning, how its questions and answers are formed, I am clear." ”

But the "flash" passes, and in the cycle of repeated labor, expectations disappear day after day. "You try to sit in front of the computer and do a day's task." Hui Zhuo said that at present, they are all drawing tigers according to cats, and they have no opportunity to contact more content. When asked about what such an AI company brings to themselves, the employees' answer is more "to feed their families."

All this, Yu Tao sees in his eyes, but as the head of the company, he has more urgent matters. In the past three years, office space and equipment have been provided by the government; Most of the business orders received came from the Internet manufacturers that they initially cooperated with. Yu Tao always has a hidden worry: "Once these resources are withdrawn, will idou company collapse?" Is the window that is hard to open closed? ”

Fourth, the shackles and liberation of the county

The data labeling industry where Yu Tao is located is undoubtedly still very young. In 2017, with the wave of AI brought by driverless driving and alpha dogs, data labeling began to truly enter the public eye. Nowadays, after a wave of reshuffle, head companies such as and Ali have successively set up their own data labeling departments and tools, and the labeling business is closer to head companies such as Totoro Data and Testin Cloud Test.

In contrast, in addition to the attributes brought by the poverty alleviation label, AI companies in small counties are not competitive in business competition.

For a long time, the low-end data labeling business of county AI companies can only survive at the bottom of the industrial chain and survive hard. Li Linfeng said frankly that many businesses require annotation platforms with thousands of people, and the business that small companies can receive may have been outsourced several layers. Most of the time, data labeling teams are faced with two choices – either no orders to do or accept a loss.

For the company's operation, both Yu Tao and Li Linfeng had hoped to seek more orders.

In March 2023, Yu Tao left the Loess Plateau and moved to Hangzhou, a water town in Jiangnan Province, which has the strongest Internet atmosphere and cutting-edge artificial intelligence technology, and the purpose of Yu Tao's trip is to win more orders for the company. But it was clear that signing the order was not an easy task, and after two days of changing the cup, Yu Tao returned empty-handed.

Yu Tao felt a certain gap. In Qingjian, Yutao has a certain appeal, but in the larger world, this advantage disappears. "I graduated from junior college, although I am willing to read some books, but my vision is not so broad, and many professional problems may not be clear. It will also suffer a big loss in business negotiations. Yu Tao said.

Without much time to think about it, an even bigger crisis has arrived. AI is replacing the data annotators who nurtured them at a perceptible rate — and now, AI algorithms are upgrading from supervised learning to unsupervised learning or reinforcement learning, which means that the threshold for data labeling is getting higher and higher.

The business of the county AI company has changed from the basic conversion of listening to voice annotation text at the beginning, to the annotation of professional fields such as medical and legal that require training to get started. Now, in the face of unfamiliar English texts, employees can only check one letter by one, and many people choose to leave because they can't do it.

The change in business has placed talent demands on AI companies. Junior high school or above, high school, junior college... In the latest phase of recruitment, Qingjian idou company wants to recruit people with a bachelor's degree or above. But this is not easy, "If you can, who doesn't want to go out." Yu Tao said. After three years of operation, the two companies recruited everyone who could be recruited in the county, and the hot recruitment scene did not appear again.

The data labeling industry, which relies on cheap labor in remote counties, is currently stuck in a dilemma of lack of highly educated talents. No one knows how big or how long this window will open, but at least for now, someone has found its own value in it.

Being in the county, Bai Xue feels that he is a "devotee" behind artificial intelligence products. He and his colleagues didn't know what ChatGPT was all about, but they heard that the product was powerful and popular in the United States, and concluded with a sentence at the end of the conversation: "No matter how great it is, it also needs people like us to mark behind it." ”

Through AI work, more county people have their own lives and worlds. There are no parks in Yonghe County, and on weekends, colleagues at the digital employment center drive to Linfen or Shaanxi on the other side of the Yellow River to travel. This is very routine, but it is already a life they never imagined before.

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