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Amazon's Mechanical Turk & OLPC


Permalink 09:51:34 pm, by Jet-Screamer Email , 577 words   English (US)
Categories: Tech Tips

Amazon's Mechanical Turk & OLPC

We just recently had the experience of utilizing Amazon's Mechanical Turk for and by another company. For those that are not aware of Amazon's Mechanical Turk (AMT), it's method is to apply a 1000 monkeys with a 1000 typewriters to a project which requires human understanding. Meaning, you can't really write a program to do it but it requires a lot of people to accomplish. Think of reCaptcha, a program which uses captchas to not only avoid bots but also to, by that same human discerning, digitize physically typed book text which computers cannot discern. Just like much scanned text cannot be optically character scanned, and needs a human to decipher, AMT's purpose is to create massive data jobs which only humans can do efficiently. Such as, "How many flowers are in this image?".

It's a GREAT concept! Nothing is cooler than a thousand monkeys with a thousand typewriters. Reality tends to float to the top. What could be finer!?!

Well, one thing. One rather BIG thing. It is very clear that AMT's business model is based on the Global Economy, however, not the PHYSICAL Global Economy, but rather the Internet Global Economy.

The worrisome thing about the AMT business model is the Second World Nation's citizens, churning away at their home computers after a hard days work, telling someone how many flowers are in their images for a wage of .05 cents per image. Oh Sure, that's likely a fair wage given the transfer rate and the fact that it takes less than a minute to perform the task on a single image BUT...

(and this scared me a bit when I considered the potential)

Consider the One Laptop Per Child project(OLPC), a FINE effort with nothing but the best intent and one which we support whole heartedly. However, consider the combination of these two things we are discussing. Is not the distribution of laptops to second and third world nations COMBINED with the existence of online services like Amazon's Mechanical Turk (AMT) brewing a new techno-sweatshop potential? Think about it, cause I'm a greedy bastard and already have. I'm a greedy business oriented guy waltzing around in my poor country and I start seeing all these 10 year olds with their OLPC laptops and I've been doing work for Mechanical Turk ... hmmmmm ... I can basically pay these poor kids with bread and reap uber profits by creating techno factories where 1000s of 10 year olds with their OLPC laptops determine "how many flowers are in this image".

How do we nip this in the bud? ... I don't know. I'm not sure we can. I think we're looking at a new era of sweatshops. Techno sweatshops, in which what we want for the young children of the world, which is to empower them by exposure to the Internet, results in just another way to subjugate their youth into cheap labor.

We have no answer for this issue, but it has not yet been raised to our knowledge, and it should be. This is one of the downsides to our new innertube World Society and one which we cannot ignore. Most major retailers have departments known as "Social Responsibility". They exist to avoid an embarrassing moment where they are found to be purchasing physical product from a sweatshop in a Third World nation with 12 year old workers. How we will avoid this type of virtual child labor with the likes of AMT and OLPC is beyond me, but must be addressed!

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