Can you explain what Mechanical Turk is all about? A friend of mine uses it to make money by doing small jobs, but I've heard some people say it's more like slave labor. What's the deal with Mechanical Turk?
What Is Mechanical Turk?
Mechanical Turk (MT) is an online phenomenon that emerged in 2005 as the brainchild of Amazon Web Services. It was originally set up to help complete their in-house tasking needs, however, it soon became apparent that thousands of companies around the world could benefit from this web application.
Mechanical Turk in a nutshell is virtual outsourcing. The MT economy is based on the exchange of Human Intelligence Tasks for small monetary payments. The people who create the HITs are called Requesters. Requesters usually break down complex tasks into smaller, basic tasks that can be completed by one or many MT workers. Usually these tasks include writing, data entry or online research. It is facilitated through an open Application Programming Interface (API) or through the Mturk Requestor web site.
The "Mechanical Turk" moniker comes from an "artificial artificial intelligence" project. The Turk was a machine invented in 1770, and it was promoted as a chess-playing robot that could beat the best players of the day. In reality, it was a clever hoax, concealing a human chess master inside the box. Amazon's Turk has real humans "inside the box" but they make no secret of that fact.
The Players In a Mechanical Turk Economy
As mentioned earlier there are two types of players in the Mechanical Turk economy, Requestors and Users. Requestors are made up of companies and small businesses that need simple tasks completed such as writing reviews and product descriptions, conducting online research, transcribing audio, and entering data. There are hundreds of companies that post small HIT groups semi-regularly, however, there is a smaller group of companies that post large groups of HITs on a regular basis.
Requesters can use the simple web-based interface to post HITs, or pump HITs into the MT system with the API. HIT Builder, a third-party software tool, can help Requesters build HITs en masse, by importing from database and spreadsheet applications.
The MT users (sometimes called Turkers) are the workers that claim and complete the HITs. MT users can include people from all walks of life and from all professions. Some companies select their Mechanical Turk users from local colleges and universities, while others will accept just about anyone as long as they are able to complete the HITs successfully.
Who are the Turkers? They can be bored housewives, college students who need a little extra money, or people in countries with much a lower standard of living, who are willing to accept the low rates typically offered by MT Requesters. While Requestors and Users can come from any where in the world, it's hard to tell who the workers are, because the MTurk system takes pains to provide anonymity for the workers.
Volunteers can also take on tasks via Mechanical Turk. In an effort to help find the airplane of missing adventurer Steve Fossett,
Amazon set up a Mechanical Turk project in which volunteers can view satellite photos and search for the crash site of the plane.
Praise and Criticism of the MT Economy
The cost of the Mechanical Turk exchange for Requestors is relatively inexpensive. Amazon has established a minimum bid of one cent per HIT, however, the price paid for each HITs is going to depend on its complexity and size, as well as on the Requestor who posted the HITs. Many Requestors find that HITs are a very affordable way to outsource large groups of similar tasks that are very simple to complete. Companies find the MT "task auction" model attractive because it reduces payroll costs.
While Requestors find the current price structure for HITs attractive, many of the top HITs producers think that it is basically slave labor. Requestors enjoy tax advantages and low costs in the MT exchange economy, but MT users are required to report the income that they earn from this exchange and as a result they may have to pay high self-employment tax rates. This coupled with the low payout rate makes the MT exchange less than perfect from a user's point of view. But then, nobody is forcing these self-proclaimed "slaves" to work for a pittance. The law of supply and demand is still in effect, and it usually does a pretty good job of controlling market forces.
Is Mechanical Turk creating an unfair labor situation? If you ask affluent US-based MT workers, they may say yes. But motivated Turkers in second and third-world economies may be thrilled at the chance to work for nickels and dimes, because the impact of those few extra dollars is magnified many times over.
Other virtual outsourcing services such as eLance and Rent A Coder can meet the needs of both employers and workers, but typically these sites require more technical skills on the part of the workers. Mechanical Turk tasks often require only rudimentary writing or online research skills.
Have you participated in the Mechanical Turk economy, either as a Requester or a Turker? Tell us about your experience.
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 26 Nov 2007
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