Oct 312010
Image representing Mechanical Turk as depicted...
Image via CrunchBase

DO one assigned task on your computer. It shouldn’t take you more than two seconds. Repeat 14,399 times. Congratulations! Your eight-hour work day is complete.

No such workplace yet exists, but with the fiendishly clever creation of standardized two-second tasks, delivered to any computer connected to the Internet, it is now technically possible to set up.

Microtask, a start-up company in Finland, has come up with the software that delivers such tasks. The company offers to take on “dull, repetitive work” — like digitizing paper forms or business cards — for prospective clients. As it says in a video on its Web site, “Microtask loves the work you hate.”

Microtask is in a position to love that work because not one of its 12 employees actually performs it. Its software carves a given task into microscopically small pieces, like transcribing a handwritten four-digit number in a tiny rectangle on a form. (Handwritten numbers and letters are the bane of text-recognition software.) These tasks, stripped of identifying information about the client or the larger task, can then be distributed online anywhere.

The approach shows how the online concept of widely distributed work has evolved since it was pioneered by the Mechanical Turk service, introduced by Amazon.com in 2005.Mechanical Turk resembles an online bulletin board. Businesses post income-earning opportunities, with rewards for each task completed. Turkers, as the independent contractors are informally called, choose a task they like and are qualified for. Recent offers included 2 cents each for finding the contact information for 7,500 hotels and 3 cents each for answering questions about 9,400 toys.

Miriam Cherry, an associate professor of law at the University of the Pacific, tried Mechanical Turk and says she found out for herself that the compensation was meager. “My assistant and I tried but we couldn’t make minimum wage,” says Professor Cherry, who presented an argument last year in the Alabama Law Review for extending minimum-wage laws into cyberspace.

Kay Kinton, a spokeswoman for Amazon, countered that a client using Mechanical Turk might pay 50 cents for transcription of a one-minute audio clip, a rate that “can add up quickly.”

Turkers can choose their tasks and when they want to work. Microtaskers, however, will have no say about what tasks come flowing in. They will be full-time employees of other businesses, such as a Finnish insurer that has put employees in an office in the Baltics to work on digitizing the company’s paper forms, using Microtask software. Microtask will keep workers focused on a single screen, supplying everything needed to complete the task, without having to surf the Web for additional information. That’s why it can assume that one of its microtasks can be completed within two seconds.

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