Is Your Mind for Sale? Inside the Allure of Digital Sweatshops

New crowdsourcing techniques can be used in amazingly constructive ways. Alternatively, these same techniques may be used as tools that exploit human labor and utilize it for evil purposes. 

 

Is Your Mind for Sale? Inside the Allure of Digital Sweatshops

The original Mechanical Turk -- a fake chess playing machine -- is one of the more notorious hoaxes in history in that it fooled a lot of smart people for a long period of time. Designed to impress a Habsburg Empress, the "machine" beat many famous human opponents in chess, including Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin. It was revealed in the 1820s, however, that the Mechanical Turk was not a machine at all. A human chess master was hidden inside, doing all of the work. 


Amazon's Mechanical Turk, a "tiny arm of the Amazon octopus," as Jonathan Zittrain puts it, aspires to the same goal. This crowdsourcing platform is described as artificial artificial intelligence. In other words, it aims to use human intelligence to do the work that one day a computer might do. Mechanical Turk assigns HITs, or Human Intelligence Tasks, out to the world, often priced at a penny. A task might involve labeling a photograph. Amazingly, there are thousands of people who "turk," and these micro-laborers tend to turk for many hours. 

What's the Big Idea?

Why is this "digital sweatshop" so addictive? Jonathan Zittrain, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School and author of the book The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, suggests that "grad students will do this all day long because it's probably the only source of positive feedback in their lives."

In a fascinating and humorous talk at The Nantucket Project, a festival of ideas on Nantucket, Massachusetts, Zittrain described Mechanical Turk as a crowdsourcing tool that can solve problems big and small. Motivated by simple rewards, collective intelligence can be harnessed to create huge stores of accurate, useful data (as opposed to computer-generated nonsense). It can even be used to solve crime.

But this is also a cautionary tale. The micro-laborers are, after all, disconnected from the end product they are creating. Amazon offers Mechanical Turk as a service to all sorts of businesses. And beyond Amazon's marketplace, the same crowd-sourcing technique could easily be used by say, the Iranian government to identify political dissidents. 

Zittrain's talk runs over 20 minutes, so take a time out from your turking and watch it here in full:

What's the Significance?

What motivates people to sit in front of screens for hours and perform tasks that will only earn them a few pennies?

As Zittrain points out, people will also do this work for free. This was a realization made by MacArthur genius grant recipient Luis von Ahn who specializes in "human computation." von Ahn developed one of the first CAPTCHAs (Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart), Internet security tools that ask humans to decipher warped text that computers cannot read. One of the added benefits of this challenge-response test is that one can engineer human labor to digitize books

Another form of human computation von Ahn has developed is the seductive online game ESP that was acquired by Google in 2006. People will spend up to 40 hours a week providing "meaningful" labels to images, helping to optimize online image searches, an area where current computer vision techniques have fallen short.

While Google shut down its version of ESP in 2011, human agents used the game to generate over 10 million labels. Like Mechanical Turk, this is a form of artificial artificial intelligence. ESP asks humans the type of task that it would like to farm out to a computer, but can't. 

If you make this task into a game, people will play it, earning "points." While this is a completely worthless currency, Zittrain points out that it is really positive feedback that people are craving, and that is what motivates them to participate. 

This has profound implications for our understanding of human behavior, and how crowdsourcing may be used in either constructive ways, or alternatively, it may be used as a tool that exploits human labor and utilizes it for pernicious purposes. 

Images courtesy of ShutterstockMeghan Brosnan

To learn more about The Nantucket Project and how to attend the 2013 event visit nantucketproject.com.

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

Videos
  • There are numerous strategies for building and maintaining a high-performing team, but unfortunately they are not plug-and-play. What works for some companies will not necessarily work for others. Erin Meyer, co-author of No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, shares one alternative employed by one of the largest tech and media services companies in the world.
  • Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
  • "An individual performance problem is a systemic problem that impacts the entire team," she says. This is a valuable lesson that could determine whether the team fails or whether an organization advances to the next level.
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Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
Culture & Religion
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