"People have long feared that mechanization might cause mass unemployment. This never happened because, as old professions became obsolete, new professions evolved, and there was always something humans could do better than machines. Yet this is not a law of nature, and nothing guarantees it will continue to be like that in the future." - Yuval Noah Harari, The Rise of the Usless Class
"Men and machines are good at fundamentally different things. People have intentionality – we form plans and make decisions in complicated situations. We are less good at making sense of enormous amounts of data. Computers are exactly the opposite: they excel at efficient data processing but struggle to make basic judgments that would be simple for any human." – Peter Thiel, Zero To One
Much has been written about how robots and artificial intelligence will replace workers, but many futurists are looking forward to man and machine working side by side in harmony, collaborating and augmenting the others' skills and shortcomings.
Mechanical Turk is already putting this theory into action by building the unique qualities of human workers into an application programming interface.
Mechanical Turk (or MTurk), which is owned by Amazon, is "a marketplace for work that requires human intelligence". There are many things humans are still better at than computers, such as image and pattern recognition, audio transcription, and seeking specific information that can only be described in human terms. As far as artificial intelligence has progressed, computers still aren't very good at doing things like naming colors, rewriting sentences, or picking out letters from images – we're safe from AI annihilation as long as they still can't beat CAPTCHAs.
As it's written on the MTurk home page, tasks like these have traditionally been done by hiring a large temporary workforce. Through the MTurk platform, workers (also known as Turkers), are now available online globally and 24/7 to do these jobs that only humans can do.
Technically, the term is "microwork," coined by entrepreneur Leila Janah, who conceptualized modern work as a virtual assembly line, with microwork being a unit of labor that is the smallest possible to accomplish a task.
Artificial Artificial Intelligence
It's also called "artificial artificial intelligence" – because while these tedious microwork units seem like the sort of thing that could or should be automated by now, they still require a human touch. The name of Mechanical Turk comes from the first famous artificial A.I.: an automaton developed in the 18th century with the form of a stereotypical Turkish man looming over a chessboard atop a large cabinet. This proto-robot appeared to be able to play chess, but had a human operator hidden inside of it moving the pieces magnetically from beneath. The doors built into the cabinet with the chess board on top of it were designed to be opened and peered through, to give the illusion that the Turk was purely mechanical.
While the orientalist stereotype of the turbaned Turkish chess master has been deemed somewhat outdated and problematic, computers that actually can beat humans at chess like Deep Blue are now a reality; and the illusion of machine intelligence with a Wizard-of-Oz-esque man (or many) behind the curtain likewise lives on.
You load sixteen tons and what do you get?
Mechanical Turk could only exist in the 20 Minutes Into The Future world we inhabit at this stage of late capitalism: somewhere between the Gig Economy that reifies those who don't eat or sleep in order to maximize their productivity doing independent contractor work and short term freelance jobs (as exemplified by Fiverr's unintentionally anti-motivational "You might be a doer," campaign), and the paradigm of digital nomadism: being able to work wherever and whenever you want through the magic of technology.
Those micro-units of work add up: Mechanical Turk relies on crowdsourcing a large pool of human-exclusive data points from a bustling ant colony of individuals. Amazon claims to have a workforce of 500,000 Turkers available to do these "HITs" (Human Intelligence Tasks), but according to research published in January of 2018 by Panos Ipeirotis, a professor of data science at New York University who has studied work on the platform since 2007, there seem to be 2-5K workers available at any given time, with a total of 10-25K full-time Turkers.
Turkers set their own hours and choose which HITs they want to do; they're technically self-employed and classed as contractors. Many reviewers commenting on the gig on Indeed.com write that it's a great job for stay at home moms: “It's good if you are a housewife with no children and love to work on the computer all day. Pros: Work at Home. Cons: Pays pennies on the dollar.”
That's the downside: although many tasks take seconds or minutes to complete, the majority of tasks (61%, according to the Pew Research Center) pay less than 10 cents each – and that's after Amazon takes their cut from the requester who created the HIT. Workers outside of the U.S. and India also can't deposit their earnings directly to their bank accounts, and are paid in Amazon gift cards.
As far as company stores go, Amazon has a large enough global reach and product selection that they could be the source for many or all of a full-time Turker's groceries, home goods, etc., but it still feels like a trap to demand that much of the money paid out by Amazon to these workers goes right back into Bezos' pocket, and for the online outsourcing industry (presumably including other microwork platforms like Fiverr, oDesk, Crowdflower, and Clickworker) to be expected to pull in 15 to 25 billion dollars by 2020, someone, many someones, obviously have to be getting the short end of the stick.
Most Turkers make significantly less than the U.S. minimum wage – roughly half make less than $5 an hour, and according to another study the median wage is less than $2 hourly. But for many workers, it isn't their only source of income. As another reviewer of the site notes: "You must understand the system to get paid."
Turkin' for the weekend
Having read that Mechanical Turk is either an amazing opportunity to beat boredom while getting paid to do work that's mindless enough to watch TV at the same time, or the equivalent of a "virtual sweatshop," several journalists have gone undercover in the Turking world to see what all the fuss is about for periods of one to 30 days.
Jeremy Wilson tried it for The Kernel in 2013, and after reading and itemizing receipts, mimicking facial expressions in his webcam, and flagging potentially offensive content, wrote "it really isn't that bad. In fact, if you have a better aptitude for mindless clicking games then me you might even find it enjoyable. I won’t be returning to Mechanical Turk. I’m not cut out for it."
Trent Hamm tried a similar experiment, Turking for a day for The Simple Dollar and also reached similar conclusions: "I also might use it if I was bored while watching a television program with my wife – but even then, I’d much more likely spend my time on Twitter or something like that. I value my mental energy at a rate higher than minimum wage." (Good for you, Trent).
However, Eric Limer, who also tried Turking for Gizmodo, had a much better experience, finding it "alarmingly easy to slip into a Turking daze." In his analysis of the platform, he tried to understand what each task that he undertook (survey taking, more receipt reading, describing videos and rephrasing statements, as well as that mimicking facial expressions task again) would accomplish in the real world. One HIT in particular, about labeling materials of objects in an image, sent him into existential crisis territory:
"I still have no goddamn idea what it was about. Then, while idly wondering if this was a job dreamed up by a human or a part-way sentient computer, I ran up against an even more pressing question. I found a little dot that said 'person.' Well shit, I thought to myself. What are the materials of a person? Brain matter, muscle tissue, fingernails, aspirations, nostril hair, a soul? Fortunately the options were limited"
Limer also admits his experience is only the tip of the iceberg, because real Turkers work significantly harder, and ironically, need a lot of help from their computers to automate the process of doing tasks that only humans can do.
Turkers of the World Unite!
Reddit's "Turkkit" forum at /r/mturk/ has a count of 34K Turkers subscribed, and hosts daily discussions where people post their activity summaries including the number of HITs they submitted, approvals and payments, as well as their earnings for the previous week. They also share things like warnings against bad requesters and share tips for finding the highest paying HITs, which has its own subreddit: /r/HITsWorthTurkingFor. Plus, there are in depth discussions about the state of the platform and the psychological toll Turking can take – avoiding and mitigating burnout are constant topics.
"Scripts" are also frequently mentioned. These are browser extensions like Turkopticon, which helps weed out the best HITs or programs like automated hourly rate calculators, which tell you which jobs will be worth the time. Scripts can also re-map keyboards to make answering HITs easier, or automate queueing to speed up the number of HITs that can be done in a row.
Kristy Milland is an activist for the Turker community and community manager for another online hub, Turker Nation. In an interview with Sarah Kessler for Wired, in advance of Kessler's book Gigged: The End of the Job and the Future of Work, she describes some of the crazy things she did whilst Turking in order to make the $100 a day she needed to survive. In the process, Milland got a repetitive stress injury and didn't have health insurance to treat it.
Without benefits like health care or any of the labor protections available to full time employees in the U.S., Turkers have learned to look out for one another. In addition to crowdsourcing their own insider tips via Reddit and the forums, and creating open source software to make Turking easier, they've also created platforms like Dynamo, which organized Turkers to lobby against Amazon's increase in fees for requesters and created things like ethical guidelines for academic research using Mechanical Turk.
Unfortunately, the Dynamo platform is now largely defunct, in part because to ensure the platform was being used by Turkers, Dynamo used MTurk itself, creating a HIT to get a code and register new users. Someone at Amazon must have caught wind of this, because the requester account that created HITs for Dynamo registrations was suspended.
Some Turkers interviewed for The Atlantic were afraid to use their real names for fear of repercussions from Amazon, because this kind of account suspension seems to mysteriously fall on those who challenge it. These Turkers also described common practices like setting alarms to wake them up at 2 or 3 AM when a good HIT was available.
Imagine waking up to a klaxon at 3 AM to get on the computer to click for pennies: not ideal working conditions. As a lawyer for the National Employment Law Project puts it, "The creativity of business in avoiding its responsibility to workers never ceases to astound."
But there is hope for the future of microwork. A group of researchers at Stanford have published plans to create an almost identical crowdsourced microwork platform called Daemo that would be self-governing and enable workers to build sustainable careers. As of the time that Wired covered Daemo's progress in August of 2017, it was not yet built to scale, but Milland was hopeful: "If you could create a platform that’s identical in every single way [to MTurk], and add one benefit—it could be as simple as, ‘We’ll listen to you and we’ll update the site per your recommendations’—everyone would move,” she says. “If we could provide them with a platform that does even more than that, it’s a no-brainer. It would kill it." But Milland is also still holding out hope for a platform created by and for the workers themselves.
In the meantime, Turkers gotta Turk: and some may still choose to do it regardless of the work conditions, all while Amazon's reach and power ever-increases. But will artificial intelligence progress enough to make microwork obsolete any time soon? Or will there always be tasks that only humans can do, with human workers relegated to repetitive, mindless, and poorly-compensated jobs in the virtual factories of the future?
As Jared Lanier has pointed out in Who Owns The Future?, MTurk and its ilk allow humans to be interchanged like software components and produce information like magic. Hopefully this particular parlor trick won't fool us forever.