From The Sunday Times
January 11, 2009
Wanted: digital drones to earn ˝p an hour
You can find jobs galore on the internet, where companies are recruiting a global army of workers. There’s just one problem — they pay peanuts
Matthew Bingham and Joseph Dunn
Fancy a new job? No qualifications are required and there are no interviews to pass. You can do it from your own home in front of a computer and, if the employer is to be believed, you will be doing the world a service at the same time. The only drawback is the salary: as little as one US cent (roughly ˝p) an hour.
After years of globalisation in which rich western economies farmed out dull, repetitive jobs to developing nations, the tables may be about to be turned as businesses start to employ westerners in so-called virtual sweatshops.
The companies work on a simple principle: many digital tasks require some form of human input and can’t be completed by computers alone. However, rather than employ office workers to work through a myriad of simple chores, they farm them out via the web to the reservoir of global digital workers growing by the week. The work can be anything from skilled translation services to repetitive data inputting and image identifying.
Some companies use virtual workers to log onto their websites repeatedly and leave complimentary comments in an effort to create an illusion of popularity and inflate advertising rates. Others ask computer gamers to clock up bonus points that can then be sold (for real money) to rich gamers. Still others ask workers to identify photos taken by people who spotted a car or an item of clothing they liked the look of and wanted to buy. There are even people who advertise jobs for “friending” them on Facebook — in effect, they are buying friends to make their profile look more impressive.
A site called Mechanical Turk, operated by Amazon, is leading the way in harnessing the army of digital labourers. Anyone can log on to the site and browse the tens of thousands of jobs on offer from hundreds of companies. The jobs are termed “human intelligence tasks”, or Hits.
Amazon, which is paid by the employer 10% of the fee for any job completed, says it stumbled on the idea after using a similar system to catalogue its vast archive of books three years ago. Once it offered the service, it was inundated by companies wanting to make use of cheap, flexible labour available 24 hours a day. Mechanical Turk is named after the Turk, a chess-playing automaton from the 18th century. In fact the machine was not an automaton — a chess master was hidden in a secret compartment, controlling its operations.
Amazon’s modern-day version now has workers in 185 countries. “What is so fascinating about this is the advances in technology that allow people to have that type of flexibility,” says Sharon Chiarella, vice-president of Amazon Mechanical Turk. “We see workers who use Mechanical Turk as their full-time job and they work from home and are there when the kids get home from work, or they are retired. We do think that this is a great way to leverage the technology to really revolutionise the way that work is done.”
She says there are no limits to the type of remote work that can be done via the site and that the type of job posted has increased in complexity as workers have learnt to specialise.
On the face of it, the site seems a good thing: it claims that workers can earn money at their convenience, while businesses can access a global, on-demand workforce. In economic terms, the globalisation of the labour market is simply the flipside to the availability of cheap consumer goods from overseas. But how easy is it for someone to make a living?
The Sunday Times signed up to join the virtual workforce. Because workers are paid as contractors rather than employees, employers don’t need to worry about overtime or paying a minimum wage, and it quickly became clear that a day’s work at the new digital coal face offered thin rewards.
One employer supplied the names of wineries and wanted to know the names of all wines they produced.
We tried four of the companies on the list. Two of the web addresses were invalid, and the other two required much digging around to find a comprehensive list of products. With two out of four Hits completed, 20 minutes’ work paid us a grand total of four cents (2˝p).
More successful was a task that required looking at digital images of the front pages of annual reports and transcribing their titles into separate files. It was tricky, not helped by Amazon’s software failing to display both the document and the text input box in a single window (experienced Turkers download specialised software to get round such problems, and automate as much of the process as possible). It earned us 40 cents for about half an hour’s work.
Setting the optimum zoom levels on a series of Google Maps for a Canadian property website meant a further 13 cents in the coffers, while estimating the ages of dozens of people in random mugshots added another seven cents. And another hour slipped by.
Finally, we hit paydirt. An employer was asking for the speech on five-minute audio files to be typed up at a whopping $1.50 a time. Transcription is bread and butter to a journalist, so how hard could this be?
Very, was the answer. The five-minute clip was a random segment from a longer press conference, starting and ending in mid-sentence. It needed a run-through to get the gist of what was being discussed — the design of light aircraft, as it happens. You had to guess at how many speakers could be heard, work out proper names and technical jargon — an early reference to “icing” left us thinking we were hearing a Q&A with a baker. It took 45 minutes, at which point we called it a day. With breaks, that had been four hours’ work for a grand total of $2.14.
Another drawback is that unless you are in the United States or India, where you get paid in cash, you have to accept credit in an Amazon account that you can redeem only for Amazon products. That will change as the network gathers pace across the globe.
The idea of a flexible workforce connected via the internet has been around for years, but it has been slow to get off the ground. Mechanical Turk allows workers in, say, Manhattan to compete directly with those in Mumbai.
It was interesting to note that many of the comments on the site’s message board were from American workers — many complaining about the low rates of pay. Reading them was like eavesdropping on a bygone era before minimum wages, labour reforms or even trade unions.
To some, Mechanical Turk could represent the beginning of a sea change in the global workforce, a great leveller through which workers across the globe can begin to compete against one another. This is good news for companies, which can take advantage of the huge discrepancies in living costs and exchange rates, but not so good for the humble digital worker.
The tool also raises interesting questions about corporate social responsibility: who is to say, for example, that the person tagging thousands of pictures of fish isn’t a child forced to skip school by their parents to earn a few dollars more? Amazon says it does not monitor the site but asks workers to declare they are over 18.
Harnessing the power of a global audience can work for the good. Wikipedia relies on the wisdom of masses for entries, and when the adventurer Steve Fossett’s plane went missing during a flight in September 2007, it was Mechanical Turk that co-ordinated a search by 50,000 people of aerial photographs, looking for wreckage of his aircraft. They did not find him but they did spot half a dozen other previously unknown wrecks.
Even so, as unemployment rockets as a result of the global financial crisis, people hoping to join the ranks of digital workers in the brave new world of internet labour would do well to remember that there is no such thing as a cushy job in cyberspace.
Don't give up the day job
Looking to earn some spare cash? All these Hits (human intelligence tasks) were on offer last week.
CREATE A PROFILE
Posted by www.freedomspeaks.com
Task Register with this US political activism website, upload a photo and leave 10 comments on content on the site.
Object Presumably to benefit the website by making it look popular and well used.
Posted by Neeraj Kumar.
Task Look at 30 headshots and tick a box next to the ones that match a given attribute, for example, whether flash photography has been used.
Object You’re possibly working for an artificial intelligence researcher. Or helping to create the Terminator.
Pay $0.01 per 30 images.
CREATE A LINK
Posted by www.blindschalet.com
Task Log on to a popular blog or forum and leave a link to Blinds Chalet, complete with a comment that uses keywords such as “great place to buy bamboo shades”.
Object Possibly to move the Blinds Chalet website up in Google’s page rankings — the more links to the site Google finds, the more popular it believes it is.
VIDEO A PUPPY
Posted by Eric Lee.
Task Upload a video clip of a puppy or puppies playing (any breed).
Object Frankly, we’re baffled.
TRANSCRIBE A PODCAST
Posted by CastingWords transcription service.
Task Type up what’s being said in a nine-minute audio clip.
Object To enable CastingWords to charge clients a budget $0.75 a minute for transcription services.
Pay $1.32, plus a bonus of up to $3.96 dependent on accuracy.
REVIEW A TRIVIA QUESTION
Posted by www.triviawars.com
Task Read questions and multiple choice answers and rate them for accuracy, rewriting if appropriate.
Object To create content for the TriviaWars website.