2006 November 14 Tuesday
Amazon Mechanical Turk Future Of Labor Market?

Amazon.com hires people to work over the web to do simple tasks that Amazon's developers can't find a way to totally automate with software.

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.

I'm guessing the people who do this usually do not even end up making minimum wage for their time. But since the convenience is so high and people can mix work and leisure time with such a fine level of granularity the appeal is not surprising.

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.

Amazon also allows other companies to use the Mechanical Turk site to hire people for other web tasks.

The Mechanical Turk is another manifestation of the phenomenon where large numbers of people collaborate over the web in their spare time to create and solve problems.

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.

The internet decreases the number of people needed to do some specialized tasks because people who know how to do them can do them for people all over the world. Also, the internet enables the development of much higher levels of specialization in tasks since someone who might rarely get to do a given task in a single city and get paid to do that task many more times when the entire world is the market for that person's skills.

What I'd really like to see: large numbers of people working over the web to do manual labor using telerobotics. All the dangerous occupations such as roofer and lumberjack could be done by robotic machines that are remotely operated.

Telerobotics will decrease workplace injuries and death, reduce the need for commuting, and also speed up construction. Picture a house under construction where people from different time zones successively take over telerobotic machinery in shift changes so that a house gets constructed 24 hours per day and 7 days per week. Absenteeism and local labor shortages would cease to slow down construction projects.

By Randall Parker    2006 November 14 10:10 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (2)
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