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Hi, and welcome to Semafor Tech, a twice-weekly newsletter from Louise Matsakis and me that gives an inside look at the struggle for the future of the tech industry.

The company behind ChatGPT, the dazzling service that has freaked out teachers, agitated Nick Cave, and may have saved Buzzfeed, has quietly hired an army of about 1,000 contractors around the world in recent months to supercharge its algorithms in an attempt to significantly expand its capabilities. What we've seen so far may be the tip of the iceberg.

In other major “tech” news, Facebook decided to re-platform Donald Trump. Why is it important? Trump and the mainstream press have been in a codependent, dysfunctional relationship for quite some time. They kind of broke up, but social media is where the couple first met and Trump’s return to Facebook and Twitter could rekindle the relationship.

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Move Fast/Break Things

➚ MOVE FAST: Smart Homes. With new industry standards like Matter and growing smart tech adoption in the hospitality sector, the smart home market is expected to grow around 11% per year, reaching more than $100 billion by 2028.

➘ BREAK THINGS: Smartphones. Sales of the devices were down 18% year over year during the holiday season, according to IDC. While some of that is probably due to supply constraints, smartphone hardware just isn’t exciting anymore.

Unsplash/Ali Abdul Rahman
Semafor Stat

The amount companies infected by ransomware paid in extortion fees globally last year, according to the blockchain research firm Chainalysis. That sounds like a lot, but it’s a 40% decrease from the year prior, when firms coughed up $766 million to the bad guys. The number may have dropped because companies are refusing to negotiate with hackers, Chainalysis told Bloomberg.

Reed Albergotti and Louise Matsakis

OpenAI has hired an army of contractors to make basic coding obsolete


OpenAI, the company behind the chatbot ChatGPT, has ramped up its hiring around the world, bringing on roughly 1,000 remote contractors over the past six months in regions like Latin America and Eastern Europe, according to people familiar with the matter.

About 60% of the contractors were hired to do what’s called “data labeling” — creating massive sets of images, audio clips, and other information that can then be used to train artificial intelligence tools or autonomous vehicles.

The other 40% are computer programmers who are creating data for OpenAI’s models to learn software engineering tasks. OpenAI’s existing Codex product, launched in Aug. 2021, is designed to translate natural language into code.

“A well-established company, which is determined to provide world-class AI technology to make the world a better and more efficient place, is looking for a Python Developer,” reads one OpenAI job listing in Spanish, which was posted by an outsourcing agency.

Previously, OpenAI trained its models on code scraped from GitHub, a repository site owned by its largest investor, Microsoft, which last week confirmed multi billion dollars in new funding first reported by Semafor. But in this case, OpenAI appears to be building a dataset that includes not just lines of code, but also the human explanations behind them written in natural language.

A software developer in South America who completed a five-hour unpaid coding test for OpenAI told Semafor he was asked to tackle a series of two-part assignments. First, he was given a coding problem and asked to explain in written English how he would approach it. Then, the developer was asked to provide a solution. If he found a bug, OpenAI told him to detail what the problem was and how it should be corrected, instead of simply fixing it.

“They most likely want to feed this model with a very specific kind of training data, where the human provides a step-by-step layout of their thought-process,” said the developer, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid jeopardizing future work opportunities. He has not yet been hired or rejected by OpenAI.

Sam Altman, OpenAI’s CEO, recently put the company’s headcount at 375 people, a tiny number compared to the thousands of staff at tech giants like Google and Facebook working on artificial intelligence. “I know I’m not supposed to brag about OpenAI,” he tweeted, touting the company’s “talent density.”

Altman did not appear to include contractors in that figure. But in OpenAI’s published research, the company has repeatedly noted the importance of outsourced labor in building its technology. “​Finally, we’d like to thank all of our contractors for providing the data that was essential for training the models,” a team of researchers at OpenAI wrote in a paper last year.

OpenAI declined to comment on its hiring practices.

Reuters/Jonathan Raa


With hundreds of programmers making a concerted effort to “teach” the models how to write basic code, the technology behind ChatGPT might be headed toward a new kind of software development as transformative to that sector as heavy equipment was to the construction industry.

OpenAI’s Codex technology is already being used in Microsoft’s GitHub to power a feature called “Copilot,” which essentially autocompletes lines of code for programmers.

Based on the work OpenAI’s contract programmers are doing, Copilot is about to become more like an autopilot, eliminating some of the rote work involved in writing code and ultimately eliminating some coding jobs altogether.

Silicon Valley executives envision products that allow creative people with little to no coding experience to build everything from web sites to video games simply by describing their visions to an AI algorithm.

“The hottest new programming language is English,” tweeted Andrej Karpathy, the former head of AI for Tesla.


The contractors OpenAI and other companies hire around the world are typically not computer science graduates, nor do they have advanced coding knowledge. Their skill is writing the kind of basic code that OpenAI hopes to one day automate.

The good news for these contractors: Despite the promising early results, there’s still a high likelihood that OpenAI hits major roadblocks in its efforts to automate coding, as tends to happen in AI development. Self-driving cars appeared imminent in 2013, for instance. Today, they seem like a distant possibility.


  • OpenAI also hired a firm in Kenya to work on content moderation, helping ensure ChatGPT doesn’t spit out racist, violent, and sexually graphic content, TIME reported last week. Workers employed there said they were scarred by disturbing content encountered during the job and that they lacked access to adequate mental health resources.
  • As U.S. tech companies look to cut costs domestically, they’re increasingly hiring software engineering talent in places like Latin America, which offers a cheap, educated workforce in the same time zone, according to Rest of World.

What We're Tracking

Several hundred Amazon workers went on strike in the UK earlier this week, the first time it’s happened across the pond. Employees there say they want the tech giant to increase wages amid high inflation. The protest is a sign that Amazon may face increased moves to organize labor as the global economy goes through a rough period.


One Good Text with ... David Hickton


Reuters/Adnan Abidi

As many experts predicted would happen, Elon Musk’s Twitter has begun causing political controversy in other countries, this time in one of its largest markets: India. Twitter was accused there of censoring tweets about a BBC documentary critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, The Intercept reported. It also restored the accounts of several Hindu nationalists who had previously been suspended for sharing hate and misinformation about Muslims.

U.S. social platforms have been accused for years of helping authoritarian regimes spread their message and silence critics. What’s different this time is that Twitter has far fewer employees, as well as a leader who doesn’t seem aware of what might be happening in other regions.

“First I’ve heard,” Musk responded when a Twitter user asked him to clarify whether his company had blocked tweets about the BBC film. “It is not possible for me to fix every aspect of Twitter worldwide overnight, while still running Tesla and SpaceX, among other things.” In the past, however, Musk has told loyal fans like @catturd2 he would be happy to look into their Twitter issues.


AI, Interrupted

The CEO of DoNotPay, who we featured in One Good Text in Wednesday’s newsletter, has given up on his idea to bring a robot lawyer to the courtroom. Joshua Browder, whose company uses AI to help people automate legal disputes, said he had received “threats from State Bar prosecutors,” warning he could be put in jail if he went through with the stunt. The humans may have won this one, but it’s only a matter of time until robots are arguing cases. Even a cave man lawyer could understand that.




NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a part of the U.S. Defense Department, are teaming up to build nuclear-powered space rockets. If you watched Apple’s For All Mankind, this already happened in the mid-1990s (thanks to a fictional, amped up space race between the U.S. and Russia). For everyone else, this is a new, really cool idea.

A similar concept was proposed back in the 1950s, but it was put on ice and the space race fizzled out when the Cold War ended. Nuclear power itself doesn’t do much for propulsion in space, but it can be used to superheat rocket fuel, giving it an extra boost and making future spaceships go around three times faster. That’s great for those long, boring trips to Mars. The two agencies hope to demonstrate the technology by 2027.



Join Semafor at District Winery on January 31 at 8:30 AM for our event on “E-Commerce and the New American Economy,” featuring a conversation between Steve Clemons and Reps. Darin LaHood, R-Ill. and Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill. We will discuss the rapidly evolving topography of global e-commerce, Congressional regulatory moves, and implications for U.S. business. You can find the details and RSVP here.

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— Reed and Louise