Human Workers Whose Boss Is An Algorithm

We envision a future in which the repetitive, manual labor is performed by robots with human overseers. But suppose we are headed for the reverse? Computers are brighter than us, after all. Via Technology Review:

Stephanie Hamilton is part of something larger than herself. She’s part of a computer program.

The 38-year-old resident of Kingston, Jamaica, recently began performing small tasks assigned to her by an algorithm running on a computer in Berkeley, California. That software, developed by a startup called MobileWorks, represents the latest trend in crowdsourcing: organizing foreign workers on a mass scale to do routine jobs that computers aren’t yet good at, like checking spreadsheets or reading receipts.

According to company cofounder Anand Kulkarni, the aim is to get the crowd of workers to “behave much more like an automatic resource than like individual and unreliable human beings.” The value of tasks is set so that workers can reasonably earn $2 to $4 an hour; payments are on a sliding scale, with lower rates for poorer countries.

The best-known crowd marketplace is Mechanical Turk, which Amazon launched in 2005. The website operates as an online odd-job market where humans earn a few pennies at a time by carrying out low-level, repetitive tasks that machines have difficulty with, such as identifying objects in photographs.

Amazon’s marketplace was a revolutionary idea. Now several startups, including CrowdFlower and CrowdSource, have written software that works on top of Mechanical Turk, adding ways to test and rank workers.

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  • I_abide

    All hail the mecha-hypnotoad!

  • Calypso_1
  • Server

    Idk about you guys, but I like my computer a lot more than I like my (human) boss.  I’m not sure this would be such a bad thing.

  • http://twitter.com/alizardx A.Lizard

    for routine work, this might be an improvement. It all depends on what’s in the algorithm. While a computer isn’t going to decide to screw workers for personal reasons, the programmers might be explicitly instructed to do so. (e.g. ‘forgetting’ to count turned-in work assignments, shorting pay by random percentages…

  • http://buzzcoastin.posterous.com BuzzCoastin

    most business have been run by MS Excel for decades
    no CEO makes a move with Word or Excel
    why should underlings be any different

  • Jesus Borg

    China is the last frontier in a way, of course so is India, but India is more of a clusterfuck. Its a frontier because it represents a huge labor pool of peasants being Industrialized. Each time you have a bunch of peasants becoming Industrialized in a country, you have massive economic growth. It happened in England and the US, Europe and other parts of Asia in the same way. Eventually the growth slows and the world economy moves on to the next group of peasants and each time the industrialization occurs faster. So that’s why there is no International Unions that work, because there is always the next batch of peasants to outsource to.

    So eventually there will be nowhere else to go and everyone will have to have a certain degree of rights, that is if the whole economy doesn’t collapse first because of no more growth.