Each day, Brenda leaves her home here to catch a bus to the east side of Nairobi where she, along with more than 1,000 colleagues in the same building, work hard on a side of artificial intelligence we hear little about – and see even less.
In her eight-hour shift, she creates training data. Information – images, most often – prepared in a way that computers can understand.
Brenda loads up an image, and then uses the mouse to trace around just about everything. People, cars, road signs, lane markings – even the sky, specifying whether it’s cloudy or bright. Ingesting millions of these images into an artificial intelligence system means a self-driving car, to use one example, can begin to “recognise” those objects in the real world. The more data, the supposedly smarter the machine.
She and her colleagues sit close – often too close – to their monitors, zooming in on the images to make sure not a single pixel is tagged incorrectly. Their work will be checked by a superior, who will send it back if it’s not up to scratch. For the fastest, most accurate trainers, the honour of having your name up on one of the many TV screens around the office. And the most popular perk of all: shopping vouchers.
Brenda does this work for Samasource, a San Francisco-based company that counts Google, Microsoft, Salesforce and Yahoo among its clients. Most of these firms don’t like to discuss the exact nature of their work with Samasource – as it is often for future projects – but it can be said that the information prepared here forms a crucial part of some of Silicon Valley’s biggest and most famous efforts in AI.
f you didn’t look out of the windows, you might think you were at a Silicon Valley tech firm. Walls are covered in corrugated iron in a way that would be considered achingly trendy in California, but here serve as a reminder of the environment many of the workers come from: around 75% are from the slum.
Most impressively, Samasource has overcome a problem that most Silicon Valley firms are famously grappling with. Just over half of their workforce is made up of women, a remarkable feat in a country where starting a family more often than not rules out a career for the mother. Here, a lactation room, up to 90 days maternity leave, and flexibility around shift patterns makes the firm a stand-out example of inclusivity not just in Kenya, but globally.
“Like a lot of people say, if you have a man in the workplace, he’ll support his family,” said Hellen Savala, who runs human resources.
“[But] if you have a woman in the workplace, she’ll support her family, and the extended family. So you’ll have a lot more impact.”