In 2005, Amazon launched Mechanical Turk, a crowdsourcing (“Artificial Artificial Intelligence”) platform that made it possible to integrate human intelligence directly into software. The service was mostly aimed at businesses in need of quick, cheap, almost-mindless labor. It created a system for easily carrying out bulk tasks that would be difficult for a computer but very easy for a human. However, the platform raises many questions about the ethics and social impact of such a network, and the distribution of power within it. "I make $1.45 a week and I love it"
Artists have engaged with MTurk and explored the questions surrounding it. In Sheep Market, Aaron Koblin paid people $0.02 to draw a sheep facing left, and in Ten Thousand Cents, paid people $0.01 each to draw 1/10000th of a $100 dollar bill. In Social Turkers, I streamed my dates to the internet and paid people to watch and send me suggestions of what to say or do via text. Jeff Crouse’s Laborers of Love the user is directed through a series of questions about their sexual preferences. Once submitted, anonymous workers interpret each of the responses, searching the internet for the image or video they feel best matches, and presenting it to the user. Guido Segni’s Crowd Workers of the World Unite is a collection of 300+ commissioned spontaneous self portraits of cloud workers raising their middle finger.
Testing and troubleshooting workflow
MTurk is not primarily designed for real-time response, and it requires a bit of iteration and experimentation to get good quality results quickly. This blog post has some strategies for optimizing for speed and price, including being clear and explicit with prompts and questions, setting a high enough baseline pay, maintaining a consistent volume of jobs, and closely monitoring workers and responses. However, one of the main takeaways is that factors like time of day or week have much more effect than changes in price or question. Further, random variations in the system not tied to any factor generally outweigh most other factors, so some unpredictability has to be lived with. Also check out this paper from MIT CSAIL on optimizing realtime crowdsourcing, and this write-up on the research behind VizWiz, an app that allows blind people to use the crowd to identify visuals with real-time response.