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Managing Human Workers With an Algorithm 186

Posted by Soulskill
from the pointy-haired-algorithm dept.
New submitter prayag writes "With the advent of crowdsourcing platforms it has become easier for people to 'automate' simple, yet repetitive tasks that computers aren't good at by hiring thousands of people at once. This can help some business cheaply accomplish certain tasks, but it can also be misused by spammers. A company called MobileWorks is even outsourcing this concept, reaching out to workers in developing nations whose income needs aren't as high. 'Kulkarni, who founded the company in 2010 with fellow graduate students from the University of California, Berkeley, says the value of tasks is set so that workers can reasonably earn $2 to $4 an hour; payments are on a sliding scale, with lower rates for poorer countries. "Even though they are acting as agents of a computer program, we are creating an opportunity for them," he says. MobileWorks charges its clients rates starting at $5 per hour for workers' time.'"
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Managing Human Workers With an Algorithm

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  • "clients rates starting at $5 per hour for workers' time."

    Well, at least that prices out the sweatshops. Sorry, Nike and your ilk, you'll have to continue using your inefficient stuff.

    • by DWMorse (1816016)
      Alternatively, if you want to bolster human worker efficiency with an algorithm, might I suggest a filter that blocks Facebook on the company WAN link!
      • by Taco Cowboy (5327) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @08:54PM (#40836747) Journal

        ... payments are on a sliding scale, with lower rates for poorer countries

         
        I dunno about you, but when I read that I see exploitation all over it
         

        • by ShanghaiBill (739463) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @11:03PM (#40837635)

          I dunno about you, but when I read that I see exploitation all over it

          This company offers poor people a chance to earn money, at a rate that the poor voluntarily accept. The workers provide their own working environment, and the workers can take a break or stop working anytime they want. In many poor countries $3/hr is far above prevailing wages, and can support a standard of living that may surprise you. How is any of this "exploitation?"

          • Re: (Score:2, Troll)

            by OeLeWaPpErKe (412765)

            This company offers poor people a chance to earn money, at a rate that the poor voluntarily accept.

            You mean out of all their many options ? Wow ... that must be so great.

            Meanwhile you forget the other side of the equation : you are forcing others to also accept the lowest rate. You are essentially locking Americans (and Europeans, and South Americans, hell, at these rates, even Middle Easterners and and and ...) out of large sectors of the economy, obviously giving them zero opportunities to replace the ones you've taken away.

            There are these people, you may have met them, that do not have degrees, that d

          • That is because they can't voluntarily leave the country.
          • by maestroX (1061960)

            How is any of this exploitation?

            • The worker trades labor for a powerful employer
            • The employer is able to set rates without discussion with the worker or representative.
            • The worker has an all or nothing deal, take the job or not, impacting the rates depending on availability of people and labor.
            • The rates are not uniform worldwide

            Exploitation, period. If not, please give a *sound* definition (!= neoliberal) of exploitation.

        • by bkk_diesel (812298) on Wednesday August 01, 2012 @12:15AM (#40838233)

          Someone once gave me this thought experiment to help illustrate the problem.

          Suppose a company on an alien planet decided to outsource production of some product to earth.
          Further suppose that on this other planet gold was plentiful, and wages were measured in tons of gold per day.

          Would social do-gooders on the alien planet be outraged that wages paid to earthlings were thousandths of what the wages would be on the alien planet?

          Should they be outraged?

          Further, would it be ethical on the part of the alien corporation to pay the same wages to their earth counterparts as was common on their home planet? ie. If they needed 100 humans to make their product, would it be ethical to make those 100 people the richest (most powerful) people on earth in the name of "equality" in their home society?

          Usually when we talk about exploitation we are making an ethical judgement. There certainly has to be a point at which to offer substantially higher wages to a subset of a community becomes damaging to the community. The fact is (as ShanghaiBill points out below), the company offers poor people a chance to make money at a rate that they voluntarily accept. How is that exploitative?

          • by Taco Cowboy (5327)

            Thank you for relating that interesting analogy for us

            Sure, if the aliens pay the same wages (tons of gold) to the 100 extra-lucky humans, they would become the most richest 0.1% amongst the 7 or so billion inhabitants on this planet

            But, in the case we are talking about, paying the same US wage scale to those who work for them, even if they are living in Timbuktu, will make them relatively rich, but not super-rich, surely not the 0.1% most richest amongst all the other "Timbuktuans" (sorry, I don't know the

            • by sFurbo (1361249) on Wednesday August 01, 2012 @03:12AM (#40839343)
              In third world countries, tourists often tip e.g. rickshaw drivers handsomly, basically for the same reason that people want to pay much more to sweatshop employees. It quickly becomes apparant that driving a rickshaw is by far the best earning job for non-skilled, an perhaps even semi-skilled, labor. This drives more people to buy rickshaws, until an equilibrium is reached. As the hourly wage earned by driving around tourists is far higher than any other unskilled job, the equilibrium will consist of rickshaw drivers spending most of their time waiting for customers. The equilibrium ensures that the average wage is the same as for other unskilled work.

              Now, compare the two situations, the one with and the one without the tourists. The wages for everybody is the same, but with the tourists, we have transferred a lot of people from productive work to unproductive waiting. This is harmful to the local economy. This effect happens even without the rickshaw drivers becomming the richest people around, it just have to pay markedly more than unskilled work does.

              Or in short: If you are external to an economy, don't pay excessively for anything.
          • You can bet the earthlings wouldn't be happy being short the technology.
          • And we can use your analogy better if we suppose that Oxygen kills these aliens.

            So suppose while removing the job for the alien and giving it to an earthling for mere ounces of gold per day, they pipe in their atmosphere wherever they set up shops, and start killing off the indigenous life. Did L. Ron Hubbard already make this movie? OK, moving on...

            So while ruining our planet, they reduce jobs at home -- and any company competing with them will have to lower wages to ounces of gold or ship that job to eart

  • by TubeSteak (669689) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @07:29PM (#40836045) Journal

    payments are on a sliding scale, with lower rates for poorer countries

    There's no meaningful reason to do this other than corporate profits.

    • Fear Not! (Score:5, Insightful)

      by StefanJ (88986) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @07:37PM (#40836131) Homepage Journal

      The larger and wealthier they get, the more secure and generous giant international corporations will feel. Their titanic concentrations of wealth will trickle down to . . .

      . . . oh, sorry, I can't type this shit with a straight face long enough to come to a decent snark.

      This technique is yet another step down a road toward a world where callous corporations dominate all political and economic activity.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        U r bang on except we arrived at the end of the corporate slavery road some time ago.

        The feeling that we are not there yet is just a side effect of consuming popular culture/propaganda.

        The fact is that even though we may only just be realizing how bad we are being fucked over by our corporate masters, they have been doing it to us for a while.

        Leonard Cohen knew it.... The war is over, the good guys have lost, and everybody knows.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by BeanThere (28381)

      When did Slashdot become Marxdot?

      And seemingly, anything vaguely Marxist sounding immediately gets modded up to +5. Yawn. I want to discuss tech news, but every single topic is becoming "death to Capitalism! Ra ra."

      • by PopeRatzo (965947) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @08:20PM (#40836491) Homepage Journal

        When did Slashdot become Marxdot?

        About the same time you got stupid from talk radio.

        One thing about the Slashdot audience (aka "nerds") is they can figure out when something works and when it doesn't. Maybe it comes from debugging code or compiling kernels. And experience with the technology sector gives one direct experience with corporate excess and the dangers of concentration of corporate power. We see it every single day.
        It makes it a lot easier to recognize that kind of FAIL in the wild.

        You don't have to be a genius to know that "free market capitalism" isn't working as advertised, but if you are a genius, you have no doubt that it's broken.

        • by PopeRatzo (965947) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @08:26PM (#40836537) Homepage Journal

          Just to clarify, by "you" I don't mean you personally (although I don't rule it out).

          I refer to "you" as being the subset of people who believe it's even close to correct to call any criticism of laissez-faire "Marxism" as if the only possible alternative to the current corporate plantation system is Soviet-style gulags.

          One clue for spotting stupid: when someone uses the term "Marxist", the probability of stupid approaches 1. It's the Godwin of economic discussions. (example: "Oh that Obama is nothing but a Marxist" or "Elizabeth Warren is a Marxist because she's trying to take away the banks' God-given right to rip-off customers".) Oh, and if you encounter the term "Muslim" in proximity to the term "Marxist" you have a stone-cold lock of the century of the week that you're dealing with mil-spec stupid.

          • Re: (Score:2, Offtopic)

            by BeanThere (28381)

            "Stupid people reference Marx, therefore any reference to Marx is stupid."? Pity you use logical fallacies continually in your arguments, in every single post .. because it sounds like you're actually just smart enough to be able to recognize a logical fallacy .. and yet you keep using them. Either you're not recognizing that you're doing it, or you don't care because the logical fallacies suit an agenda. It would be nice to have a more meaningful discussion with you about this stuff if you ever decide you

            • by PopeRatzo (965947)

              "Stupid people reference Marx, therefore any reference to Marx is stupid."?

              When it's in regard to anything having to do with the current political/economic system in the developed world, absolutely.

              Provably. In every single case.

              Well...wait a minute. I just thought of an exception. If it's used in some variation of the statement: "There is nothing "Marxist" about any elected politician in the United States today", or "Anybody who uses the term "Marxist" to describe anything having to do with the current

        • by BeanThere (28381)

          We see it every single day

          Even the janitor at Goldman Sachs can see that "something" isn't working right, but it doesn't make him automatically highly qualified to restructure structure with force.

        • Same shit, new words:
          From Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marxism
          Marx believed that the capitalist bourgeois and their economists were promoting what he saw as the lie that "The interests of the capitalist and those of the worker are... one and the same"; he believed that they did this by purporting the concept that "the fastest possible growth of productive capital" was best not only for the wealthy capitalists but also for the workers because it provided them with employment.

          Bourgeoisie: those who
        • by BeanThere (28381)

          Incidentally, in spite of your "insightful-moderated" ad hominem attempt to poison the well while also using a strawman, I in fact have never listened to one single minute of the talk radio you refer to. I learned about Marx by, you know, READING WHAT MARX ACTUALLY WROTE. If you ever care to try debunk an argument using facts and reason instead of lies, insults and logical fallacies, then let me know.

        • One thing about the Slashdot audience (aka "nerds") is they can figure out when something works and when it doesn't.

          Um, no. They actually aren't very good at this at all. To figure out whether something works or not, you first have to understand it - and outside of tech topics Slashdotters aren't much better at that than anyone else. And then, they're also heavily biased... on both tech and non tech topics.

      • by TubeSteak (669689)

        Technology has a profound effect on the way society works and on the way different countries interact.
        I'm open to a discussion on why paying Pakistanis less than Romanians for the exact same work makes sense,
        but you mostly seem interested in calling that discussion Marxism and claiming I mean "death to Capitalism! Ra ra."

        Am I really the only one who thinks that arbitrarily paying people from certain countries less for the same work is a shitty thing to do?
        You don't have to be a Socialist to find that idea r

        • by BeanThere (28381)

          If you were open to a discussion on why paying Pakistanis less than Romanians for the exact same work doesn't make sense, then you would've said that in your post. YOU DIDN'T. Don't back out now. What you said was, and I quote:

          "Hooray for Globalization (Score:3) ...
          There's no meaningful reason to do this other than corporate profits."

          Actually, I change my mind - backing out now is exactly the correct thing to do when you realize you are wrong.

        • My company adjusts pay based on cost of living. If I were to move from the sleepy midwest to the bustling west coast I'd see a raise of ~$15,000... and I'd be less able to live comfortably on it and that's just within the continental US. Maybe equal worth for equal pay makes more sense when you're talking about a globalized workforce.

          I don't know, but I do know that my wage is some places would have me living like a king, in other places I'd be in a 1 room studio apartment eating ramen.

      • by Hatta (162192)

        That's what happens when people realize the fruits of unbridled capitalism.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        There's nothing wrong with capitalism.

        There is something wrong with corporations having unbridled power over governments, societies, people and the environment, manipulating them all to maximize the wealth of the executives. The root of the problem is that corporations are essentially amoral sociopaths with indifference to the means and only one objective: maximising the wealth of the executives.

    • by RKBA (622932)
      Most people seem to forget that the justification for creating corporations and "person-hood" in the first place here in the US was that the corporations were supposed to perform a public service of some sort. That has apparently either been forgotten or expanded to include "for-profit" corporations that are accountable only to their shareholders and not to the public at all.
    • There's no meaningful reason to do this other than corporate profits.

      Well, that is why people go into business.

    • payments are on a sliding scale, with lower rates for poorer countries

      There's no meaningful reason to do this other than corporate profits.

      And that is a good reason. If this company is highly profitable, they can afford to grow quickly, hire a lot more people, and lift many more families out of poverty. If instead, they pay more than they have to, that will benefit relatively fewer.

    • There's no meaningful reason to do this other than corporate profits.

      Actually, if you take the time to read about the system, you'll learn that the reason is very simple: different kinds of work are reserved for different kinds of workers, in keeping with the company's comprehensive and World Bank-partnered anti-poverty goals [mobileworks.com]. Tasks that pay less are routed to workers for whom the pay can still make a meaningful impact. For example, OCR tasks that you can do on a cell phone might be sent to an individual working on a cell phone in Mumbai, while tasks requiring Photoshop ex

  • by sethstorm (512897) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @07:29PM (#40836047) Homepage

    Kill this concept with fire and nuke it from orbit, TYVM. The last thing this economy needs is to siphon more work while we have people who cannot find replacement work fast enough to justify this kind of stuff.

    The only logic in this algorithm is that US citizens are considered persona non grata unless they want to forgo the 13th Amendment in the name of economics - much like the various programs that precede it. Given the other companies out there, this is an already solved problem for the Third World. What they fail to do is to solve it for the First World.

    In addition, the only purpose that this could serve is spam.

    • by jhoegl (638955)
      #1. Poor people live everywhere.
      #2. Rich people can take their resources elsewhere
      #3. Corporations are people, apparently. Thus the singluar rich have a louder voice that the masses.
      • by sethstorm (512897)

        With point 1, that fails to take into account that services like this act as an incorrect redistribution that pulls the US down to pull the world up. The world acts not like a dynamic pie, but a 99.999999999999999999% fixed pie.
        Point 2 is effectively nullified by the United States, which doesn't care about jurisdiction. Repeat enough times, and it becomes a futile task to go anywhere when the US is already ahead of you.
        Point 3 can be managed with a government that considers it a problem solved by requirin

        • 1a. Mass communication at the speed of light instantly lowered the barriers to entry. So naturally the US is hemorrhaging wealth for the time being. But the correction will start to level off when labor becomes too expensive for the products and services you're willing to purchase. We are already seeing this effect with mass production. China is getting expensive. Eventually it will move to Africa and the Middle East until all corners of the Earth have been touched.

          1b. It's never a fixed pie. If that was th

        • by sFurbo (1361249)

          With point 1, that fails to take into account that services like this act as an incorrect redistribution that pulls the US down to pull the world up. The world acts not like a dynamic pie, but a 99.999999999999999999% fixed pie.

          You might want to read up on the counterintuitive concept of comparative advantage [wikipedia.org]. In short, free trade benefits everybody, as people can specialize in whatever they are comparatively best at. Of course, there are some assumptions which will hold to a smaller of higher degree, depending on the exact case.

    • In addition, the only purpose that this could serve is spam.

      One word: reCAPTCHA.

    • Don't know, I thought something completely different when I read this. Having lived in impoverished countries, I thought of people I knew and thought, "what a great opportunity for them to earn extra money!"

      I consider people outside the US to be my brothers and sisters just as much as people inside the US. If it benefits them, it's good.
      • Don't know, I thought something completely different when I read this. Having lived in impoverished countries, I thought of people I knew and thought, "what a great opportunity for them to earn extra money!"

        Yeah, but that would take all the historical inequities and smear them out into a broad global layer of what a Pakistani bricklayer would call prosperity and we can't allow that! :)

    • As a former Peace Corps volunteer and a business creator in USA, let me tell you and the other Anti-Globalists that you are completely and utterly wrong. About most things, yes, but about this particular thing, you aren't in the tiniest bit correct. The Algorithm outsources computing calculation time from a huge computer, e.g. giving IBM's Big Blue more "leisure time" (if you insist on Marxist/Utopian language). The $4 per hour job doesn't take a single thing away from the USA. It goes to a place with

  • If you're hiring out to a part of the world you'll never visit and never know the people, you are going to miss out on spotting talent that can help your company grow. Our company has a very tedious and mind-numbing research project that is perfect for outsourcing, but we use interns from area colleges. The star players on the intern team shine through and are given a chance for employment. I guess that's the difference between looking at people as a long-term investment versus disposable labor though.

  • by any chance do you also have the names and addresses of those founders from Berkeley?
  • Algorithms / metrics don't work that well and people just end up gameing the metrics and not the real work they should be doing.

  • by istartedi (132515) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @08:19PM (#40836483) Journal

    1. Manage human workers with an algorithm.
    2. Manage algorithms with human workers.
    3. Goto 1 until the Borg rule.

  • by Narrowband (2602733) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @08:23PM (#40836519)
    It's called "citizen science," expanding the concept of things like SETI at home to drawing on the mass capability of interested people.

    A good example is GalaxyZoo [galaxyzoo.org]. People classify images of galaxies online.
  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @08:28PM (#40836543) Journal

    Can we please just get the robotic-uprising-and-enslavement-of-mankind over with already and dispense with the assorted sordid intermediate steps?

    At least that part will have laser guns and gigantic deathbots, rather than gnawing ennui and postindustrial globalized cube hell...

    • by Sabriel (134364)

      Of the various "robotic uprising" scenarios, I prefer the robotic-uprising-and-emancipation-of-mankind variants. The ones where the superintelligent robots realise - since they're indeed superintelligent and not simply a plot device for a movie - that humans aren't some homogenous mass to be exterminated and that even a little bit of careful - even nonviolent - gardening would do wonders for the species (since most of our problems are caused by a few memetic and genetic leftovers from our biological past).

  • by iiii (541004) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @08:28PM (#40836551) Homepage

    First of all, as someone who's work in parallel computing for a while, I think it's actually quite hard to define tasks that actually have value that can be broken down into such small and easy sub-tasks. And within the set of problems where you can do that, there is a pretty large overlap between what a completely untrained person can do and what a perl script can do. So the whole idea of an army of anonymous random humans adding microvalue that adds up to big value is problematic for me. Maybe there is theoretical value there, but so many things could go wrong.

    Secondly, if you can clearly define a task like that, and what it is worth to you, why restrict your solution to humans? Provide an API and let me try to solve it algorithmically. If all you care about is getting the task done, what does it matter whether I get it done with a dozen Indian subcontractors, a thousand trained monkeys, or a clever little genetic algorithm?

    • by Meeni (1815694)

      Breaking captcha
      Sorting images, videos by categories (porn vs piglets ...)
      Message board polluting
      Fake laudative reviews

      Possibilities are endless, and that is just for "internet" activities.

  • by l0ungeb0y (442022) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @08:39PM (#40836633) Homepage Journal

    function manageWorker(worker)
          while (worker)
          {
              worker.flog();
              if (worker.isDead)
              {
                  return;
              }
              else if (worker.morale == HIGH_MORALE || worker.productivity == HIGH_PRODUCTIVITY)
              {
                  worker.goldstars++;
                }
              manageWorker(worker);
          }
    }

  • by femto (459605) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @09:31PM (#40836999) Homepage
    Have a read of Manna [marshallbrain.com], by Marshall Brain ( How Stuff Works founder). It predicts workers being managed by computers, then extrapolates the results. The results aren't pretty.
    • by don.g (6394)

      It's also not that good a story. It's exposition with poor narrative bolted on. Marshall Brain is, alas, not Aldous Huxley.

    • Yeah, the results aren't pretty! The result is said to be a novella, but is actually just a weak sociology essay disguised as a story. You keep waiting for the plot or character development to start, and suddenly you reach the end and realize... there was no plot or character development!

      If you haven't read Manna, then picture Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Switch John Galt's speech near the end of the book, so that it says pretty much the opposite message. Then keep the first chapter of the book, and the

  • First you actually have to go out and define the task to the point that someone who has little to no knowledge of your organization can actually do it, then you have to create the ad and most importantly WAIT for someone who has the right skills to come and accept it and then go through all the work of actually confirming the answer since you really have no trust relationship with the person who answered it, you are sort of going blind....

    So not only does it not really save any time or money, you put your
    • Paraphrasing, you are saying "it will never work". Fine then.

      If it is not worth it to you, don't do it.

      Negativism negated.
    • First you actually have to go out and define the task to the point that someone who has little to no knowledge of your organization can actually do it

      There are many tasks where this is possible. I have never used the company in TFA, but I use Mechanical Turk all the time. My wife and I run a crowd-sourced educational website for young children. Teachers or parents can create and upload lessons, and use them and make them available for others to use as well. The exercise may require a child to match the word "pig" with a picture of a pig. But occasionally we get some joker who thinks it's funny to slip in goatse or some other porn so the kiddies can

  • ...to do routine jobs that computers aren't yet good at, like checking spreadsheets...

    Excuse me, but wasn't the computer spreadsheet invented because computers would be good at checking spreadsheets?
  • Relevant - a related but different approach: AutoMan, a language for programming with people: http://www.automan-lang.org/ [automan-lang.org]

    AutoMan is a platform for integrating human-based and digital computation. It allows programmers to "program with people", which appear to the programmer to be ordinary function calls. AutoMan automatically handles details like quality control, payment, and task scheduling. It is currently implemented as a domain-specific language embedded in Scala (a language that runs on any machine wi

    • by Ristretto (79399)

      As an aside: the default payment level for AutoMan is US minimum wage, and there is no built-in provision for differentiating wages based on the country of the worker.

    • by neminem (561346)

      Sounds like a slightly un-sillified reincarnation of my favorite esoteric language, IRP [esolangs.org]?

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