Microsoft's Cortana Virtual Assistant in Action IBTimes UK

Microsoft's Cortana voice assistant may have been built on underpaid labour. According to a new report, the company paid contractors a meagre $12-14 an hour for transcribing 200 Cortana-based tasks.

According to leaked documents found by Vice Media's investigative arm Motherboard, contractors were given tasks to transcribe and categorize a large volume of audio clips – they needed to listen to these clips and choose the category they belonged to. 200 such tasks were needed to be performed in an hour, and if employees were able to perform even more tasks, they were given a raise of $1.

The low pay grade for such tasks reveals how much effort is taken to design voice assistants. While tech companies make a huge chunk of money selling smart devices that utilize such services, those actually involved in the operation don't get much benefits. It is not the nature of the task put the pay grade that is of the essence here.

This use of contractors is controversial, with allegations that such contractors had to listen to phone sex and intimate conversations as part of their work.

"The fact that I can even share some of this with you shows how lax things are in terms of protecting user data," a contractor employed by the company told Motherboard. Even though Microsoft has stated that it has obtained user permission for letting its contractors hear users' conversations, the legality of the act is questionable. It is a part of the long user agreement that no user has the patience to read. Users readily press "Agree" before considering that their conversations might be heard by another human.

"I generally feel like that while we do not have access to user identifiable information, that if Microsoft users were aware that random people sitting at home in their pajamas who could be joking online with friends about the stuff they just heard that they wouldn't like that," the contractor stated further, on the condition of anonymity.

While tech companies such as Google and Microsoft have built an image on having employee-friendly workplaces for top-of-the-line staff such as engineers, those at the bottom end seldom get benefits. Instead, they are exploited. Earlier this week, Foxconn, which makes devices for top tech companies including Apple and Samsung, was accused of using Chinese schoolchildren in its operation and overworking them for low wages.

While everyone loves to use hi-tech products, it seems from such instances that they have become a tool for the exploitation of both users and low-end workers involved in these operations.

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