Mechanical Turk

Back in January, when I demonstrated the Mechanical Turk to my Crowdsourcing students, I would show to them one particularly cryptic project.  What it was was simply two boxes.  The one on the left held an apparently zoomed-in image, while the one on the right was blank.  With a simple brush, you were asked to redraw the image on the right.  Colours were chosen with a colour dropper, and an adjustable ghost image in the right box made tracing easy.   We all knew that we were creating a larger image, guessing it was an art project, but I did not think it could possibly turn out too effective.

I was wrong.  The results of that project have surfaced, in the form of “Ten Thousand Cents“.  TUrns out we were drawing a one hundred dollar bill.

The total labor cost to create the bill, the artwork being created, and the reproductions available for purchase are all $100. The work is presented as a video piece with all 10,000 parts being drawn simultaneously. The project explores the circumstances we live in, a new and uncharted combination of digital labor markets, “crowdsourcing,” “virtual economies,” and digital reproduction.

This project serves as a brilliant metaphor of the normalizing power of crowds.  When you open up a project to the masses, governance becomes extremely difficult.  Anybody is given the ability to contribute erroneous information.  However, as you gain a larger community of contributors, things balance out despite the fouls.  Consider opinion-based efforts, such as Digg and Travelocity: eventually, the best items shine through.  That is why Wikipedia is so reliable considering the circumstances: because thousands of editors are better than one.  So how is Ten Thousand Cents relevant?

Still Ben, right?


As a follow-up to my short profile on the Mechanical Turk, Wired has published a story about Jim Gray, titled “Inside the High-Tech Hunt of a Missing Silicon Valley Legend“.

It’s an interesting story that I had regret writing so little about, so I recommend checking out the article for the full story — or as full as it can be.

A recurring criticism of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk is that it is misused as a virtual sweatshop. In the Salon article titled I Make $1.45 a Week and Love It, it is pointed out that salaries under $600 do not have to be reported to the IRS by companies, but all earnings are supposed to by workers. “What Amazon is trying to do is create the virtual day laborer hiring hall on the global scale to bid down wage rates to the advantage of the employer,” labour activist Marcus Courtney says in the Salon article.

Blaming Amazon is pretty off the mark, as I truly believe the Turk was not founded for malicious business but rather as an academic pet project by CEO Jeff Bezos — consider his investment in human-powered search ChaCha as proof (Artificial Intelligence, With Help From Humans).

However, there’s no denying that there are misuse of the service for cheap labour is quite common. The most despicable example that I have seen in the past few weeks is that of APC’s teleclass transcription. Consider the following screenshot:

An hour’s content transcribed for $2.26?! Ridiculous. Even the most skilled typist would be probably making about a dollar an hour (my qualitative research professor a few years back estimated 4 hours transcription time for every hour of content).

Humourously, the company states on their website that “using the latest transcription equipment, (they) can accurately trascribe your teleclasses or webinar” (emphasis added by me). Sure, the company should not exist —it seems like one of those misguided attempts by lazier people not to get a real job after school, where a person prints some silly business cards and labels themselves “President and CEO”. Yet, this litter is an important thing to acknowledge in assessing micropayment crowdsourcing today, and how to continue it in the future.

The next ‘Cons of the Turk’ will look at Internet spam.

One last side note in defining “crowdsourcing”. Though its root word of ‘outsourcing’ often implies the transfer of work to cheaper employees, this is not a quality implicit in ‘crowdsourcing’. Rather, what it inherits from its root is the sense of displacing a traditional job, in this case by creating a crowd-modeled alternative meant to improve on it. Hopefully that clears up some confusion.

Earlier this year, Turing Award -winning computer scientist Jim Gray set out on a short sailing trip. He did not return. As search parties tried unsuccessfully to find him, the effort was taken online.

News spread like wildfire, with some of West Coasts smartest people aiding the effort. An imaging satellite was routed to the Pacific route Gray had been on, in response to requests by Google and NASA. Time was urgent, and the satellite has thousands of images. With these two issues in mind, Amazon offered their form of help: they put the data on the Turk.

Amazon Mechanical Turk is a service launched in 2005 as a solution to tasks too difficult or impossible for computers to achieve. Billed as the Artificial Artificial Intelligence, the Turk offers an infrastructure for paid crowdsourcing. A requester is given a simple interface for splitting up the work into smaller tasks, called HITs. The HITs are given a value and posted on the site, where the Turk’s userbase is given the option to accept the HITs or ignore it. Successful completion gives the user monetary credit, which can then be transferred to Amazon credit or simply to a bank account.

In the search for Jim Gray, volunteer Turk workers examined images from the satellite. They were given reference of what his yacht would look like, and photo by photo, they marked whether there was anything unusual in the photos. Each photo was reassessed a number of times.

Photo semantics analysis is a prime use for crowdsourcing. Since it’s inception, Mechanical Turk has hosted many similarly clever projects. Computers have limits, and the theory under which Mechanical Turk was conceived, to create a human-intelligence powered computer, has been the guiding light to its most successful projects. I’ll revisit some of best examples in the future. Of course, the service has also been exploited for less than saintly purposes, something that I will also return to.

Unfortunately, the Jim Gray story did not yield a happy ending. Yet, technology’s ability to mobilize such a large group of eager but physically unable volunteers makes our future seem all the more hopeful.

For more information on Amazon Mechanical Turk, see Mechanical Turk on Wikipedia and the Mechanical Turk FAQ page.