What is the least you would be willing to be paid to verify business addresses or phone numbers for a database? If you had a large online inventory and wanted simple word tags to describe each one of your products for search engine optimization, how much would you be willing to pay somebody to trudge through your product images and generate tags?
Tasks like these still require human labor, but a voluntary wage for such tasks is usually very low, especially relative to legislated minimum wages.
Despite exponential growth in computing power and capabilities over the past few decades, computers still struggle with simple tasks like identifying objects in a picture, making qualitative judgments, and confirming the accuracy of language translations. Amazon embraced this fact and connected those that need these Human Intelligence Tasks (HITs) performed with the humans willing to do them.
The service is called Amazon Mechanical Turk, after the fake chess-playing machine constructed in 1770. It was just a real, human chess master playing from inside a box. Back then, no such artificial computing capabilities existed, mechanical or otherwise. Like the “machine,” Amazon Mechanical Turk involves humans doing the work, even if the task seems suited for computers.
A company with a large catalog might want to find and eliminate duplicate listings, but the items’ pictures and descriptions might be a little different, making computers unqualified for the job. “Turkers” may also fill out surveys for marketing information, social science research, or really anything the task creator wants to ask a large number of people. Audio and video transcriptions are common, too.
Submissions are judged by having multiple people perform the same task. If their submissions are the same or very similar, the task requester can assume that they are really working on the task and not just filling in random text to complete tasks.
Below is an example of a HIT that asks people to pull information from pictures of receipts. If three people perform this HIT and two of the responses for the business address city are “Lincoln Park,” but one of the responses is “a;sldkfj,” the first two would be paid and not the third. Having more than one submission per HIT is more costly, but the task requesters get more accurate responses this way.
Today, there are more than 500,000 workers and around 200,000 HITs listed. Most tasks will earn the worker just a few cents, but some workers have been able to make a living from the service. As a member satisfactorily completes the simpler but lower-paying HITs, they are granted access to the higher-paying ones. A dedicated few make thousands of dollars a month by working full time. Others make a few extra hundred dollars a month by doing HITs after their regular job.
A recent study found that almost half of the MTurk workers performed tasks while at their primary job: “For example, a cab driver at the airport may answer survey questions while waiting for a fare. A teacher or office worker could MTurk during lunch break.”
Many enjoy doing the tasks as a form of relaxation and social engagement. Although the tasks seem incredibly boring to me, some find it an escape from boredom. Through turker-only forums, they have built a large, thriving community. They direct their fellow turkers to fun and high-paying HITs and help them steer clear of tasks posted by those who might fraudulently withhold payment for a completed task. Hayek would be impressed.
Minimum-Wage Activists Strike Again
The most common hourly rate for working on HITs is about $1. As such, minimum wage proponents have railed against Amazon Mechanical Turk, calling it modern day slavery. They see people having fun and voluntarily exchanging pennies for simple tasks and want it abolished. Bored people should just stay bored.
What would they say is an appropriate price for asking somebody to select what color a shirt is in a picture? How much should they charge for filling out their age, sex, and favorite ice cream flavor in a survey?
The correct answer, of course, is whatever the two parties agree on. Workers can scroll through hundreds of thousands of HITs and decide for themselves which ones are worth the payment, which is listed with each HIT. If something looks too long and complicated for the advertised payment, they can simply pass on it. The workers have complete control over which tasks they perform, what hours they work, and, of course, whether they are signed up to be an Amazon Mechanical Turk worker at all!
In the early days of Amazon Mechanical Turk, Salon ran an article on it that read like an exposé of a cult or a crime ring. They found a man who does HITs for fun and made him out to be an unknowing slave to evil corporate interests:
Curtis Taylor, 50, a corporate trainer in Clarksville, Ind., who has earned more than $345 on Mturk.com, doesn’t even think of turking as work. To him, it’s a way to kill time. “I’m not in it to make money, I’m in it to goof off,” he says. Taylor travels a lot for business and finds himself sitting around in hotel rooms at night. He doesn’t like to watch TV much, and says that turking beats playing free online poker. To him, it’s “mad money,” which he blows buying gifts on Amazon, like Bill Bennett’s “America, the Last Best Hope,” for his son, a junior in high school. “If I ever stop being entertained, I’ll stop doing it,” he says. “I’ll just quit.”
Yet what’s a happy diversion for Taylor is serious business for the companies on Amazon Mechanical Turk.
It turns out that there is a market for bored people. Prices emerge to pull them out of their boredom by working on simple tasks.
There are other ways people with extra time on their hands can provide labor services for low or even no pay. Certainly minimum wage proponents wouldn’t condemn volunteering for charities like homeless shelters, soup kitchens, Habitat for Humanity, disease awareness/cure campaigns, etc. Yet, what non-arbitrary feature distinguishes this sort of work from other lines of work that might offer a wage lower than any proposed minimum wage?
Not All Value Is Expressed in Dollars
In all voluntary arrangements, both the worker and the employer agree to a mutually beneficial wage, which sometimes means $0/hour. Even if nothing tangible is trading hands, it doesn’t mean that volunteers get nothing out of their work. Their “payment” is knowing they did something nice for free. It’s not really a wage or a payment in the economic sense, though, because the employer doesn’t lose this good feeling, like they would forgo money wages for paid work. In fact, volunteering labor like this is more appropriately considered a gift, not an exchange of labor for a wage.
When individuals make a choice, they aren’t just exchanging goods for goods or services for money, but they are making choices over alternative states of the world.
A potential volunteer isn’t weighing $0 against time working for some charity, they are weighing all the consequences of helping a charity versus not helping, including the subjective feelings they have for the cause and the knowledge that they had a hand in its well-meaning goals.
Likewise, a turker only agrees to a $0.01 HIT if the task looks easy or fun enough. They weigh the prospect of doing the task and receiving one penny versus missing out on the fun and not receiving the penny. Again, “fun” is also subjective. Most of the tasks look downright boring to me.
Whether a job requires intense effort and a specialized skill or just having a human brain, market prices are the only way to match people that want to do the job with the people that want the job done. Even $0/hour is sometimes voluntarily chosen by a worker who simply wants to help a certain cause. Mandated minimum wages eliminate these kinds of peaceful and productive arrangements, leaving both parties unsatisfied and society worse off.