Updates to this story
Amazon’s labour market site Mechanical Turk is facing allegations of failing in its aim of providing a free network of employment across the world, with its system that is referred to as a ‘human cloud’ causing a downward spiral of poor quality work and poor pay.
Mechanical Turk, named after a supposedly automated chess machine dating from the late eighteenth century which was in reality controlled by a human, is a site on which computer programmers known as Requesters are able to set anonymous Human Intelligence Tasks (HITs).
These tasks, such as entering data or choosing the best photograph from a selection, are unable to be performed by computers, and so are posted onsite to be completed in return for a predetermined amount of money.
While the site may aspire to a noble aim of offering easily accessible anonymous labour, a recent experiment on the MIT Technology Review site showed how unfortunately many humans are in fact too dumb or lazy to perform the simple task that are requested such as selecting the categorisation of a restaurant from a list.
This shoddy workmanship which has been exposed is apparently to do with what economists call a Market for Lemons, according to Panos Ipeirotis at the Stern School of Business, wherein the seller in a market cannot evaluate the quality of work before paying. Essentially this is where the anonymity of the site comes a cropper.
While there may theoretically be two types of product, those of a good quality worker and a bad quality worker, the buyer does not know which they will be getting so payment will generally end up in the middle, putting off higher paid workers and leading a spiral of wages and expectations.
This could just be an elaborate version of what all of us non-economists call the ‘you pay peanuts, you get monkeys’ rule, but however you look at it means that what could be used as a useful tool with benefits on both sides is awash with apparently poor quality work and, up until recently, has lead to many tasks requested being spam related, according to Ipeirotis.
Ipeirotis posted in his blog how up to 40 percent of all tasks on site would concern paying a few pennies to perform such tasks as clicking an ad or following someone on twitter, before Amazon suddenly cleared the site.
The fact that the menial tasks pay so little has led to as Luis Von Ahn, the creator of reCaptcha, ruminating on whether Mechanical Turk has essentially become a high tech version of a sweatshop, where wages are likely unlikely to reach a recognised minimum.
Von Ahn mentions that there are indeed firms which are seeking to circumvent regulations of minimum wages, citing one one unnamed firm ""We use Mechanical Turk because otherwise we would have to pay people $7/hour to do this task." In other words: "We use Mechanical Turk to get around the minimum wage laws."