ALTOM: 'Mechanical Turk' puts humans to work

October 20, 2012

Sometimes, all you need is a virtual sweatshop to get things done. You need to do a lot of mind-numbing, repetitive tasks and you don’t want to pay much for them. The solution may be Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.

The name “Mechanical Turk” refers to a chess-playing mechanical man who made his inventor a fortune from the late 1700s well into the 19th century. It was a conjurer’s trick, consisting of a chessboard on top of a desk-like cabinet that contained gears and see-through compartments and a wooden mechanical figure at the back dressed in “Turkish” garb that moved the pieces on the chessboard.

In fact, a chess master was curled up inside the machine and moved the pieces. The Turk was passed from owner to owner until it was eventually destroyed by a fire in 1854. Remarkably, it wasn’t until after its destruction that the secret of the Turk was finally revealed.

The rationale behind naming Amazon’s service “Mechanical Turk” is that the modern Turk likewise offers the ability to do things that the devices of our time can’t readily do, a concept called “crowdsourcing.”

Most repetitive tasks can be done by computer nowadays, but many can’t. Writing copy, testing software, filling out forms, giving opinions, conducting research, classifying photos, and many more types of jobs can’t be done by machine, but can be done by the massed humans queuing up to Mechanical Turk.

You can see the simple interface for Mechanical Turk at https://www.mturk.com/mturk/welcome. Essentially, Mechanical Turk has two types of users. “Requesters” offer “human intelligence tasks” or “HITs,” often with only nominal pay, while “providers” make up the work force that actually performs the tasks.

The idea here, as you can tell from the human intelligence part of the name, is to efficiently outsource jobs to the big wide world of humans that can’t readily be done by computer. It’s sometimes called “micro-labor” because the tasks are usually short and easy, and consequently pay little per task. Amazon merely provides the Mechanical Turk site and takes a cut of all the payments rendered by the requesters.

For example, a given requester might ask providers to look at a series of photographs and pick out the most attractive individual from among them. These might pay a penny or two per selection, and might be requested by a graduate student doing a study.

Another might pay a few dollars for filling out a lengthy survey for a trade group or business. Most HITs don’t require any pre-qualifications, but some do. Writing ad copy, for example, might require a provider to be accepted as a bona fide writer before starting. These kinds of HITs generally pay better, if not well.

If you’re planning to be a provider, you should know that Mechanical Turk is almost completely unregulated, and fraud is rampant. You may perform several HITs only to discover that you won’t get paid for them because the requester has unaccountably refused to accept your results.

There is also a good deal of click fraud, in which you’re encouraged to click through to a website and perform a task or two within it for a fairly large amount of money in Turk terms, but it’s a scam on the part of the requester, who is being paid for driving traffic to the target site and is charging for each click. Comparatively few HITs are scams, but enough are to make any sensible provider a bit wary.

Being a requester requires equal vigilance. Many providers are cranking out as many HITs as they possibly can, and the work is often sloppy. You’ll need to establish a fair but practical rate, which is often so small as to seem embarrassing.

HITs that require experience and skill can run double-digits, while rote work can cost only pennies. Many high-end HITs require what is known as a “judgment,” a decision usually guided by more than just a momentary impulse.

The span of HITs you can have performed is extremely broad. One recent requester, for example, asked providers to categorize the sentiments expressed by Tweets. Another had hundreds of photocopied business cards that needed to be entered into a database, and had providers read each card and transfer the data to a form. When the Turk works, the results can be impressive. Hundreds or thousands of high-quality judgments can be harvested in just a few hours. Some HITs have gotten even more.

It’s interesting that providers are often driven as much by loyalty to known requesters as by the rate, and providers and requester may work together regularly to do complex or skilled HITs. Mechanical Turk has a large number of occasional providers, but it also harbors a community of both providers and requesters who get to know one another and thrive together.•


Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.


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