Last November, with relatively little fanfare, sales-giant Amazon introduced a new work-for-hire program called Mechanical Turk. Without having to submit a resume or application, anyone with an Internet connection and an Amazon account could sign up and start making money. Immediately.
Some tasked asked you to transcribe audio. Others matched pictures to business names. Some made you look up handwritten information on deeds. Others simply asked for your opinion. Simple tasks and easy to do, but they were tasks that machines just couldn’t do.
Amazon recognizes that people still do some jobs better than machines–whether it’s editing product descriptions or spotting street addresses in pictures. It calls these jobs “HIT”s, human intelligence tasks. And they know that businesses are willing to pay to get this repetitive but human-powered work done.
According to Amazon Vice President of Product Management and Developer Relations Adam Selipsky, Mechanical Turk offers a “marketplace for intellectual capital”. It brings business tasks together with the labor needed to complete them. Its technology manages the job listings and captures the results of any work performed.
More after the break…
Although throughout Mechanical Turk’s brief history, most task offers were generated by Amazon and their subdivisions like search engine A9.com, their vision reaches further. Mechanical Turk isn’t just about people working for Amazon interests.
It’s a platform that provides solutions for many kinds of business and it’s scalable. Requesters (the people who pay to load work onto the site) can create jobs with hundreds of tasks or up into the millions. Amazon provides the Website and the programmer interface (the API). They hope that the business world will catch onto the idea, signing up to have their work done this way: Amazon Mechanical Turk is leaving beta and officially launching in just a few weeks.
GETTING TO WORK
Mechanical Turk works like this. You sign up, start accepting task assignments, complete them and then submit them for review. When they pass inspection, you get paid. If you’re expecting to sign up and start earning barrels of cash, think again. You’ll probably struggle to make even minimum wage.
The payments are very, very small. One of the most successful and reputable requesters, Casting Words, pays about 18-19 cents to transcribe a minute of audio. Amazon pays a penny per request for top three favorites: for example, your favorite brands of soda, your favorite movies, your oscar picks and so forth. Another set of tasks pays a penny per Google-Answers-style question, with the possibility of winning one of their $10, $20 or $50 weekly “Great Answer” rewards. You could work yourself to the bone all week for maybe a buck in pay, and walk away with nothing more.
Exploitive? Perhaps not.
Mechanical Turk is the free market in action. After its launch, it was inundated by the infamous SlashDot effect. Tens of thousands of tech-savvy folk popped by to give it a whirl.
Soon the posted task payments began to drop: Early tasks that started at 75 cents, soon dropped to 65, and from 65 to 60, and from 60 to 40, all the way down to the current rate of about 1-3 cents per task. As more and more willing workers joined the site, the job requesters took the increased labor force into account and dynamically lowered payments as they posted new batches of HITs. Classic capitalism.
This didn’t deter the jobseekers. SlashDot poster “Annoying” wrote, “As a broke-ass college student trying to save what meager money I have from work to go on a spring break vacation this year, I can say being able to pull together even another $10 a week would help me immensely, that is the difference between feeling like I am living comfortably, and feeling like I’ll tightened my belt till my eyes are bulging so I can go on vacation.”
Some SlashDot readers even considered subcontracting the work out to India, before realizing that any worker with a reasonably fast Internet connection could sign up directly and skip the enterprising middleman.
Amazon Director of Web Services Software Peter Cohen affirmed both the legality and non-exploitive nature of the program, relying as it does on willing workers. “We spent considerable time making sure that it meets legal requirements,” he said. Amazon declined to comment as to whether labor unions had been consulted before launching the program.
THE APPROVAL GAME
It’s not enough to just sit down at the computer, sign into Mechanical Turk and start getting paid. Your submissions must be accepted before payment gets approved. And you might be surprised at how many of your tasks get graded: it’s automated as well.
Many requesters use a plurality approach to approve or reject submitted tasks. Take the picture-picking task for example, where workers selected the picture that best represents a storefront. You get paid when you pick the most popular result. As Cohen put it, “We’re looking for workers exhibiting the most plural judgement.”
It all depends on how the requester sets up the approval process. Some jobs are hard to do, but easy to verify. After, some work–for example, a write-up–is finished, reviewers look it over and a different kind of plurality takes over. When more people agree that the work looks good, the original worker gets paid. Say two out of three graders agree that you answered properly, you get paid. So do the two graders who agreed. That third grader? His non-agreeing approval task gets rejected.
Some requesters skip plurality entirely and use in-house staff to review and approve Mechanical Turk generated work. They receive the results of the outsourced work, look it over and decide on a case-by-case basis whether to approve or reject the results.
Although you can tart working without prior qualifications, many requesters figured out that asking you to apply for certain tasks helps them manage who does their work.
Every worker gets rated on at least five points: their submission rate, their approval rate, their rejection rate, their return rate (rejecting already-assigned work) and their abandonment rate (failing to finish work within the specified timeframe). These rates determine which tasks workers are allowed to select.
In addition, Amazon has built qualification testing into the Turk system. Requesters can create and then administer language or visual skill tests that workers must pass before granting access to HITs. For example, to be allowed to translate business letters from Japanese, you might need to score an 85% on a translation quiz. Only qualified translators could work on those hits.
Other qualifications are simpler. They ask you to opt in to the qualification at a basic level, so the requester can keep track of your work. This way, as you do good work, your qualification increases to reflect this. Keep track of your assigned hits and earned qualifications on the outstanding hits and current qualifications pages.
THE BIG PICTURE
After all is said and done, Mechanical Turk isn’t going to make anyone (except, perhaps, its founders and the businesses who use it) into millionaires. If the wages are too low for your comfort zone, no one’s forcing you to work.
However, if you’re retired, a college student, or a stay-at-home parent it may offer you a way to earn a few bucks towards the purchase of your next book or DVD. There’s no travel expenses involved and you can get started from the comfort of your armchair.
As Amazon moves out of Beta and into the big time, the quantity and variety of the work on-offer is sure to increase. I’m curious to know what kind of solution’s it will be providing on the horizon.
- Mechanical Turk is named after a famous 18th Century hoax where a chess-master was hidden in a fake “automated” chess playing machine. You’re the modern-day equivalent of that chess-master, providing “artificial artificial intelligence”.
- To join Mechanical Turk, you need to be over 18 years of age and have an Amazon account. You need not be a US citizen to participate.
- You can cash out your money either directly to your bank or to an Amazon Gift Certificate.