Data Ethics Club meeting 31-01-24, 1pm UK time#

Meeting info#


You’re welcome to join us for our next Data Ethics Club meeting on 31st January 2024 at 1pm UK time. You don’t need to register, just pop in. This time we’re going to read a Washington Post Article called Duolingo cuts workers as it relies more on AI by Gerrit De Vynck, which is about how AI is being used at popular language learning site Duolingo. It’s a pretty short one at ~1200 words, which is handy if you’re in a late January time crunch, but we’ve also summarised it below too.

Thank you to Huw for suggesting this week’s content, and Amy for writing our summary and discussion questions!


Throughout 2023, an undisclosed number of contractors working for Duolingo had their jobs terminated across dozens of different language programmes. These accounted for around 10% of Duolingo’s total contractors, and were primarily those writing lessons and translating phrases between languages.

Prior to this, since OpenAI’s release of ChatGPT, many companies have begun using these tools to replace copywriters and editors, among other roles.

Duolingo had initially told employees that they wouldn’t be replaced with AI, and are still maintaining that no full sentences generated by AI have been put into any of their courses, but former contractors have said that the quality of lessons has dropped considerably, with far more errors in the app’s content.

Duolingo have instead stated that AI is being used to “increase productivity and efficiency” to improve courses faster, due to their user base having grown by nearly 50% in the last year up to over 80 million, rather than to replace “the expertise of human experts”.

AI in translation is not new - long before the release of ChatGPT, Google was using early versions of the technology to improve Google Translate’s accuracy.

A criticism of Duolingo’s approach is that many contractors were not approached with offers of internal roles when they were laid off. While big tech developments like this create whole classes of new jobs, these use very different skillsets to the work of human translators, writers and editors whose roles are being replaced. Worldwide, it has been found that the number of adverts for freelance “automation-prone” roles fell by 21% after the introduction of ChatGPT.

Contract workers who were not fired by Duolingo have seen their roles shift to reviewing AI-generated content, an anonymous current employee has said. While the content being created by AI isn’t currently up to Duolingo’s standards for release, there is the chance that as tools keep being refined and improved, the need for these reviewers could be removed too, putting further jobs at risk.

Discussion points#

There will be time to talk about whatever we like, relating to the paper, but here are some specific questions to think about while you’re reading. Questions:

  1. Should companies be upheld to legal and ethical requirements to notify their employees that they are looking into AI-driven solutions to replace their roles? How would this work in practice?

  2. Are there any circumstances where it could be considered ethical to lay off a small proportion of employees within a company for the benefit of the wider organisation?

  3. Legislation and guidance around AI regulation such as the UK’s National AI strategy focuses on the creation of new jobs to integrate AI, rather than the protection of existing ones - what more should be done at this level and at a corporate level to support this?

  4. What other job roles are at risk of content creation professionals being replaced by reliance on AI chatbots? Should companies have to be transparent publicly about their use of AI?

Bonus question - for anyone who uses Duolingo, have you noticed any difference in the quality of the phrases and lessons in the last six months or so? Are there other apps, products and services you’ve noticed dip in quality due to AI?