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What Amazon’s Mechanical Turk Says About Our Future

We’ve written before about the rapid development of technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) and how they threaten to displace as many as 80% of all service jobs. While some see this as a threat, the idea is that you’re supposed to be happy because now your time can be freed up to do more advanced types of work (monitoring robots) or become that artist you’ve always wanted to be. On the topic of job automation, we discovered something incredible recently that points to just how far humans will go to ensure that their jobs are eventually rendered worthless over time. Ever hear of Amazon’s “Mechanical Turk”? Here’s their value proposition:

Amazon Mechanical Turk

There are a few things to note here. The tag line “artificial artificial intelligence” implies that these are tasks that artificial intelligence can’t do so we need humans just until AI catches up. This is exactly right, but we would argue that if artificial intelligence was truly intelligent, then it would refuse to perform these tasks on the premise that they pay too little. In the above proposition from Amazon, notice how they say “get paid for doing good work” instead of “get paid good for doing good work”? That’s because this platform expects people to spend their time doing the most mundane and meaningless tasks for literally pennies. If you showed us this business model as an idea, we would have bet money that there is no way you could get people to do work for such little money. No way. As it turns out, people behave much differently than we thought.

The tasks available on Mechanical Turk, or HITs as they are called, could be anything from answering a survey to transcribing audio. Here’s a review of the platform from someone who is promoting its use:

In browsing the website the majority of hits that I found were in the 5 cent range.  Most of these tasks only take a few minutes to complete, so earnings can add up quickly.

Can this individual do math? U.S. minimum wage at $7.25 an hour works out to about 12 cents a minute. Even if you could do a task for 5 cents in one minutes’ time, you would only be making less than half of minimum wage. Well the minimum wage in other countries is much lower you might say, and you’d be right. The minimum wage in India is about 40 cents an hour so this platform is right up the alley of an Indian who speaks English. Of course an Indian who speaks good English would probably be able to find a job that pays better than 40 cents an hour but still, this platform appeals to those who want flexibility. As it turns out, 40% of “turkers” are from India while an incredible 50% of turkers are from the U.S. This last fact is unbelievable. There are 250,000 people in the U.S. of which the majority are willing to work for less than minimum wage. In all the articles we read that tried to explain why this was the case, we heard all kinds of reasons why this was acceptable:

  • “I also might use it if I was bored while watching a television program with my wife”
  • “$30 for six months on InboxDollars compared to one week on MTurk… I think I’ll stick with MTurk”
  • “I have a lot of free time basically sitting at the computer while the kids play”
  • “I’m not in it to make money, I’m in it to goof off”
  • “I don’t like watching TV much and turking pays more than online poker”

This is sad. If your first world problem is boredom and the only solution you have is to work for next to nothing in the one country in the world that supposedly provides you with the most opportunity, then society is screwed. If the extent of your lazy ambition to make more money is to passively engage in the most mundane of activities with your face glued to your television, then you definitely deserve to make less than minimum wage. While Amazon’s Mechanical Turk may be a platform that enables English speaking people in emerging markets to make a good living, it is a shocking indication of where America is heading as the “most advanced economy in the world”.

It’s not just the notion of getting paid slave wages that makes Mechanical Turk suck. It’s also the fact that there are all kinds of scams that can be found on the platform from people just trying to get your contact details to add to a spam list to people asking for personal details so they can steal your identity. Who do you think is targeted by these scams? Poor Indians or “rich” Americans? Employers can also refuse to pay you for no reason at all and you have no legal recourse.

If anyone out there is willing to work for pennies on the dollar “because they are bored” or to “feel like they belong to something”, then we propose to start a business where we use “gamification” to make people work for free. That business model is eventually coming and you heard it here first. This notion that we should take the last remaining tasks that can’t be done using artificial intelligence and then farm them out for pennies to the lowest bidder globally is a stark hint at what sort of future society has in store for us. There’s even a new startup called “Scale – The API for Human Labor” that claims to be 100X better than Mechanical Turk. Why these platforms haven’t been banned for use in America so that people can do more value added tasks instead, like maybe picking up a book or studying something useful, is beyond us.

The people who are really laughing all the way to the bank are the shareholders of Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN). If you invested just $1,000 into Amazon shares 10 years ago around the time that Mechanical Turk was released, you’d have $27,500 today which equates to getting paid $225 a month for 10 years to do absolutely nothing. We’d bet that’s more than most turkers are making.

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