The first thing that hit Manu Chopra when he walked into the room was the dirt. It was 2017 and Chopra, then 21, was on a field visit to a data company in Mumbai as part of his new job in AI. Inside the hot, dusty room he saw around 30 men hunched over laptops under a barely moving ceiling fan. When Chopra spoke to them, they told him they were earning $0.40 per hour. He didn’t have the heart to tell them the data they were generating was worth at least 10 times that amount, perhaps much more. “I thought, This cannot be the only way this work can happen,” he says.
The data that makes today’s cutting-edge AI systems possible often originates from factories in the Global South, where workers toil for low wages to teach autonomous vehicles how to drive or, increasingly, rate the reliability of chatbots. Seeing this firsthand led Chopra, now 27, to found Karya: a nonprofit that would do things differently. Karya not only pays its workers at least $5.00 per hour (around 20 times the Indian minimum wage) for their work, it pays them again every time a company licenses it to build a new AI. Much of the work Karya does right now is collecting datasets of Indian languages that have so far been sidelined from the AI boom. That data will go toward building AI systems in those languages that work not just accurately, but also equitably.
“I genuinely feel this is the quickest way to move millions of people out of poverty if done right,” Chopra, who was born into poverty and won a scholarship to Stanford that changed the course of his life, told TIME. “Wealth is power. And we want to redistribute wealth to the communities who have been left behind.”