When workers turn into 'turkers'

Amazon.com's 'Mechanical Turk' Web service pays people to perform simple tasks computers cannot do.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Some day, your boss could be a faceless Mechanical Turk who doles out tasks over the Internet. For nearly a year, Amazon.com's Mechanical Turk (mturk.com) has paid amounts ranging from one cent to several dollars for tasks that take a few seconds to a few minutes to complete. The jobs include taking surveys, contributing to a restaurant guide, transcribing audio clips, and looking at photos on the Web to identify colors, street addresses, or human faces.

Curtis Taylor has made about $1,400 since last December just "fooling around with" Mechanical Turk while he watched TV at night. The technical instructor, who lives near Louisville, Ky., used the extra income to buy a new computer and wireless headsets for his and his wife's cellphones.

Chuck Freiman, a paralegal in Charlotte, N.C., spends two or three hours a week on the Turk. To him it's a hobby, not a job. "It's not like I have to get dressed up and go to work or anything," says Mr. Freiman, who brought in about $25 last month. As long as he can make a little money, he says, "I'll be doing it."

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The Mechanical Turk has given a 21st-century twist to the centuries-old concepts of "cottage industry" and "piece work." People work in their homes and are paid based on how much they produce instead of an hourly wage, using the Internet connections that have become a standard feature in most homes.

While some worry that the Turk could become another work-at-home scheme with low pay and no benefits that exploits workers, others suggest that if the concept took off, it could allow anyone – a college student, a shut-in, the newly unemployed – to quickly earn an income. The Turk could be the employer of last resort.

Though most jobs assigned by the Turk are simple (many could be done by children), they have something else in common: They can't be done by computers – at least not very well. It turns out, artificial intelligence (AI) still needs a little help from human intelligence.

The "Mechanical Turk" refers to an 18th-century hoax involving a mechanical chess-playing automaton. Outfitted with whirling gears and a head topped with a turban, the Turk toured Europe, defeating human opponents. But the impressive-looking robot was a fake: A human chess master was hidden inside.

More than two centuries later, online retailing giant Amazon.com found its AI programs were struggling to solve a number of problems, such as telling whether two similar but slightly different Web pages displaying products were really duplicates. The story of the Turk led the company to a counterintuitive solution: Use humans to work behind the computer screen.

"There are so many things in the world where human judgment can so simply come up with the right answer and where with a computer, there's no way for it to understand that problem," says Peter Cohen, the director of Amazon's Web Services software unit, which includes the Mechanical Turk.

Last November, Amazon began to post tasks it needed done. The company also opened up the website to what it calls "requesters," outside companies looking to use the Turk to find workers.

"This has huge potential because it's really tapping the connectivity that's created by the Internet," says Jesse Heitler, an entrepreneur in Ann Arbor, Mich., who's been developing services to take advantage of the Mechanical Turk and its ready supply of workers (sometimes called "Turkers"). One of Mr. Heitler's first projects, AskforCents.com, promised inquirers two quick answers to any question they wanted to pose, from the specific ("Where in the Seattle area is the next showing of that new World War II movie by Clint Eastwood?") to open-ended advice ("What shall I have for dinner?").

The questions were answered in secret by Turkers, who received a few cents if they provided a helpful reply. He planned to charge question askers a few cents to receive their answers.

But Heitler shut down AskForCents after learning that Amazon is testing its own question-answering businesses. Amazon's move left him "frustrated," because its test sites – nownow.com and askville.com – appear to be doing almost exactly the same thing Heitler's site had been. Heitler says that he has more ideas for using the Turker workforce, but he's keeping them under wraps for now.

The Mechanical Turk is just one form of what has been called "crowdsourcing," the ability of the Web to harness amateurs to use their spare time to create content or solve problems. Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia created by volunteers, and YouTube, the website that serves up homemade videos, are two prominent examples of online content created by amateurs working from their own computers.

Since last December, Yahoo Answers (answers.yahoo.com) has provided some 100 million free answers provided by volunteers to questions from "What is a good first sewing project?" to "Where in Europe should we go on our honeymoon in October?" The quality of the answers is graded by the inquirer, and past answers are kept and can be found by searching an ever-growing database.

"We have shied away from a paid model [such as Mechanical Turk]," says Tomi Poutanen, product manager of Yahoo's social search businesses. Money is not the only motivator, he says.

"People want to share their knowledge, their opinion, and have a voice," he says. They can also use their answers to establish a reputation in an area of knowledge that they might later turn into a business. A person who has built a following as a Yahoo gardening expert, for example, might develop that into a gardening business.

But some think the paid Mechanical Turk-style model will prove more durable. "In my mind, there's going to be a real movement away from this Wikipedia, YouTube kind of social networking or crowdsourcing to actually paying people for the work," Heitler says. It'd be amazing, he says, if at any time anyone could log on and earn $5 or $10 in an hour. "If this really takes off, that's where it's going to go."

One challenge for Mechanical Turk is to provide enough work to keep a enough Turkers interested so that it has a ready labor pool available when companies come looking.

"It looks as though there are about 5,000 to 10,000 people registered" at Mechanical Turk and about 500 are online looking for assignments at any given time, says Sherwood Stranieri, a search engine marketing consultant who has posted work on the Turk and writes a Web log about Turking at www.paylancers.blogspot.com.

Though not huge, that's already a pretty useful number of Turkers to draw on, he says.

Mr. Stranieri posted an advertising copy-writing assignment on the Turk and was impressed by the quality of work returned.

"There obviously are some very educated people floating around in that system," he says. "The vocabulary they used was pretty impressive."

Though requesters aren't supposed to communicate directly with individual Turkers, they can devise online tests Turkers must pass before they can work on a request. That's especially important for jobs that require specialized skills, such as translating a document between two languages.

"It becomes a lot more intriguing because you no longer have this anonymous, unskilled workforce," Stranieri says. "You can start to build up ... almost a private workforce of qualified workers."

But much still has to be worked out. For one thing, Amazon requires Turkers to be paid with US dollars deposited into an American bank account. Though Amazon's Mr. Cohen says Turkers already come from 100 countries, the vast majority are in the US. The true impact on wages of large numbers of, say, Indians or Chinese becoming Turkers has yet to be felt. And though working for the Turk is completely voluntary, it's not clear how the concept would affect labor markets if it were adopted on a large scale.

The Turk's tasks previously would have been performed by an employee or a direct contractor, observes Jeff Howe, a writer at Wired magazine who helped coin the term "crowdsourcing" in an article earlier this year. He now tracks the trend at crowdsourcing.com, his Web log.

Mechanical Turk is a "rather depressing" aspect of crowdsourcing, he concedes, largely because the tasks often seem so monotonous.

A few more interesting uses of the Turk have begun to appear. Aaron Koblin at UCLA used it to pay 1,000 people two cents to draw a picture of a sheep, which he turned into an online art project called The Sheep Market (users.design.ucla.edu/~akoblin/work/ thesheepmarket/index.html).

Another project asked 1,000 people to answer the question "Why are you here right now?" for a penny. A month later, the answers have been collected into a book; part of the proceeds will be donated to children affected by hurricane Katrina (see YRUHRN.com).

But perhaps the Turk's best news is that even its simplest tasks show that human intelligence will be needed for a long time to come. Despite the Turk's drawbacks, "I think it's rather brilliant," Mr. Howe says.

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