Has everyone here heard of Amazon's Mechanical Turk? It's a site to which companies can post small jobs that require human intelligence, but not much of it, for very small amounts of money. A 500 word essay for a content farm might fetch USD 5, while identifying a picture, transcribing a short piece of audio, or drawing a box around an object in a photo, might fetch $0.01 - $0.03. It's called "Mechanical Turk" in honour of an old showground trick. What appeared to be an amazingly good robot (in the days before robots really existed, and called the mechanical Turk) was in fact operated by a hidden puppeteer. Amazon's Mechanical Turk is designed to be used in the same way. There are quite a few smartphone apps, for instance, that will send part of the job off to humans. The app descriptions never seem to mention this, preferring us to believe it is all done by amazing computer technology.
There's a New Scientist article about it here
and an article about one of the better uses for it here
On the one hand, Mechanical Turk offers the new low-skilled jobs that will replace the many unskilled jobs (check-out operators, for instance) that technology is slowly but surely replacing. Something has to fill this gap. It also potentially provides a way of globalising jobs, helping poor countries get into a service industry paid for by the rich. But it is very ripe for exploitation. It crosses national borders (and hence skirts local labour laws), and every worker is a home-based piece-worker (and hence not subject to any minimum wage or working conditions).
It's also interesting from a technological point of view. What further uses will innovators find for this melding of human and computer skills? And will we keep investing in ways to get computers to do complex tasks if we can get humans to do them so quickly and cheaply?
I use a couple of iPhone apps that use Mechanical Turk, so I thought it would be a good idea to find out what it is like on the other side.
On Sunday, I signed up as a Mechanical Turk worker and spent an hour taking on a few random jobs and not going out of my way to find higher-paying jobs. I completed 14 jobs. The first 3 or 4 were assessing to-do list items with regard to whether they could be broken down into sub-items and whether they could be aided by an online personal assistant, and if so, how. This was kind of fun, but paid only 1c per item.
Then I took on a 5c job in which I was asked to look at 100 pictures in which other workers had drawn boxes around the part that showed the "ceiling" and rate them as "good" or "bad". This dull task took around half an hour, as the criteria were quite strict and arbitrary and the pictures were loaded one at a time. I did it to the best of my ability, but at the end, I was not paid the promised 5c (or anything at all), as someone decided I had marked too many "bad" boxes as "good".
Next, I took on a job of watching videos and taking note of when people in them made a promise, threat or apology, or expressed an opinion. I had to write in the start and end times and what they said. For this, I was paid between 11c and 22c (a base of 11c, with a bonus of up to 11c for each job depending on what types of statements I could find).
Next, for 3c for each set of 10, I ran through lists of quotes from people who mentioned "o2" (apparently, a phone company) and assess whether each expressed a positive or negative feeling about the phone company (or whether the quote was unrelated to the company or expressed no opinion).
Another job paying 3c, was to put an item into a product category from a long list. This looked very dull and rather time-consuming, so I rejected this job.
All up, in my hour as a Mechanical Turk worker, I earned 64c.