Training your replacement, AI, for pennies?
Not so much.
Inside Amazon's clickworker platform: How half a million people are being paid pennies to train AI
Internet platforms like Amazon Mechanical Turk let companies break jobs into smaller tasks and offer them to people across the globe. But, do they democratize work or exploit the disempowered?
Each morning when she wakes up, Kristy Milland powers up her home computer in Toronto, logs into Amazon Mechanical Turk, and waits for her computer to ding.
Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT), which has been around for over a decade, is an online platform where people can perform small tasks for pay.
Milland is looking for job postings, or "HITs"—and the alerts tell her when a listing matches her criteria. "The alerts go off once a minute," Milland said. "I break from what I'm doing to see if it's a good HIT before I accept the job."
Sometimes, a group of HITs is posted. "If a batch comes up and it's lunchtime, or I have a doctor's appointment, or my dog needs to go out," said Milland, "I drop everything and do it. I'm literally chained to my computer. If this is how you feed your children, you don't leave."
She has been doing this for 11 years.
Milland is one of more than 500,000 "Turkers"—contract workers who perform small tasks on Amazon's digital platform, which they refer to as "mTurk." The number of active workers, who live across the globe, is estimated to run between 15,000 and 20,000 per month, according to Panos Ipeirotis, a computer scientist and professor at New York University's business school. Turkers work anywhere from a few minutes to 24 hours a day.
Who are Turkers? According to Ipeirotis, in October 2016, American Turkers are mostly women. In India, they're mostly men. Globally, they're most likely to have been born between 1980-1990. About 75% are Americans, roughly 15-20% are from India, and the remaining 10% are from other countries.
"Requesters"—the people, businesses, and organizations that outsource the work—set prices for each task, and the tasks vary widely. They include, but are not limited to:
For instance, a recent task for Milland was to transcribe the contents of a receipt. According to Milland, the company that asks for that work will then sell the information to marketing and research departments at companies like Johnson & Johnson, P&G, and others. (The pay for that specific task was three cents.)
- data categorization
- metadata tagging
- character recognition
- data entry
- email harvesting
- sentiment analysis
- ad placement on videos
The early days of AMT
Milland calls herself a digital native. "I hit puberty, [and] I was on the internet," she said. And Milland said she's always "hustled online," using platforms like eBay for extra income. So when she came across an article about the opportunity to do click work when Amazon Mechanical Turk launched in 2005, it seemed like a perfect fit.
In those early days, Milland saw it as "more of an experiment" than real work, she said. But during the 2008-2009 recession, that changed. Milland, who had been running a daycare center, had to move—and lost her income. At the same time, her husband lost his job. She began working on AMT full-time. For Milland, that meant 17 hours a day, seven days a week.
"We started viewing it as work," she said. "And we really started questioning it as work."
Rochelle LaPlante, based in Los Angeles, has been working on AMT full-time since 2012. Echoing Milland, LaPlante agreed that the work is unpredictable. "You never know when work will be posted," she said. "It could be at 3 am. And there's absolutely nothing to do at 9 am."
"I'm not as hardcore as some people," LaPlante said, "because I do value my sleep." Others, she said, set alerts. "If a requester posts at 3 am, their computer will ding, their phone will ding, and they'll get out of bed to do that work. It completely controls their day."
Neither Milland or LaPlante experience a "typical" day—primarily because they're usually setting a goal for how much money they need to make. During a normal day, LaPlante may work eight hours. "But it's 10 minutes here, 20 minutes there—it all runs together," she said.
So what do Turkers make, on average? It's hard to say. But Adrien Jabbour, in India, said "it's an achievement to make $700 in 2 months of work, working 4-5 hours every day." Milland reported that she recently made $25 for 8 hours of work, and called that "a good day." Just over half of Turkers earn below the US federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, according to a Pew Research Center study.
LaPlante talked about the difficult choices she needs to make, juggling work and life. "I have to decide: Do I take that job, or do I go to my family dinner?"
"For people living paycheck-to-paycheck on this kind of thing, on the edge of being evicted," she said, "those decisions are difficult."
For those working on AMT, there's a frustrating reality: Not all Turkers are created equal.
Amazon's system designates certain workers "Master's Level." When a new requester posts a HIT, it's automatically defaulted to find Turkers at this level—which costs more for the requester, and pays more for the worker....MORE
If you don't have that designation, you are eligible for far fewer jobs.
One weekday in March, Milland said, there were 4911 available tasks on Mechanical Turk. She was eligible for 393 of them—just 8%.
So how does one attain a "Master's Level" designation? No one knows.
Milland has seen unqualified people—those with a low number of completed tasks, low approval ratings, false accounts, or suspensions—all earn a Master's Level.
"There does not seem to be any rhyme or reason," she said.
Amazon won't reveal their criteria to attain this level. (TechRepublic reached out to Amazon for comment, but after initially agreeing, the company later declined to be interviewed for this story.)...
HT: Abnormal Returns