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Jonathan Zittrain is a Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, Professor of Computer Science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Vice Dean for Library and Information[…]

As companies learn the advantages of third-party, virtual labor, Jonathan Zittrain believes that the human mind is becoming commodified as a sort of “ubiquitous computer.” Here the Harvard Law professor provides examples of this trend and weighs in on its likely impacts.

Topic: Evaluating the Ubiquitous Human Computer

Jonathan Zittrain:  Well, I think a lot of computer scientists have been thinking about what they call ubiquitous computing, the idea that with really good bandwidth and wireless at that, and fast processors, there’ll be computers everywhere, more than just in your lap on a laptop or in a Hallmark card when you open it and it sings you happy birthday.

I’m interested in a counterpart to that, which I think of as ubiquitous human computing.  And that is a trend that’s just starting to get ramped up, where we start to think of the human mind as if it were a server.  As if it were a commodity that you could throw at a problem and ramp up by just investing a little bit more money in your project.  And we see this in three layers, each of which has an example company at work and each example of which is really interesting to me.  I like these companies, I like all three of them.  But in total, I see reason to, I don’t know, be bemused about what’s happening.

At the top level of this phenomenon, is a company like InnoCentive.  InnoCentive was started by a big pharmaceutical concern, to create a marketplace for companies, like itself, that might have engineering or scientific problems to solve that aren’t exactly Nobel Prize worthy, but are more complicated than just something you could send downstairs and to be able to take those problems, describe them, and put a bounty on their solution--$15,000 to the first person somewhere in the world that can create a molecule that has the following characteristics.  It smells like this and it’s machine washable.  And there’s a race on then among those who tend to troll that site—a lot of unemployed chemical engineers, among others—and somebody comes up with the answer, submits it, it’s validated, collects $15,000, and in exchange, it’s as if he or she ever had the idea.  That becomes the property--lock, stock, and barrel—of the company that commissioned it for the money, big money, that it paid for it.

So that’s sort of on the high end of putting problems out for solution, where you’re basically indifferent to who’s solving the problem, what their motives are, anything else.  You may not even meet them or correspond with them; you just get a solution for your money that required a human brain in the middle.

Then one notch down, there’s a company like LiveOps.  LiveOps, from what I can tell, is extremely successful, and it’s a company that will employ anyone in America, at the moment, who can get through its test.  And the test is administered automatically over its website, a number of questions, reading comprehension, kind of like a mini SAT test, and other languages, if you’ve got them, are tested.  And then they also test your computer outfit, do you have a decent internet connection, do you know how to use your PC, more or less, and a working headset. 

And of many, many people who might apply on one end, only a few fall out after hours of the tests on the other end ready to be, I wouldn’t say hired by LiveOps, because they won’t be employees, but in a working relationship with them, like contractors.  And then it’s almost like a video game.  You’re in the privacy of your own home, maybe you’ve got your kid in the playpen next to you, you turn on your LiveOps account, and where do you want to go today?  Well, maybe when you first start, it’s just taking pizza orders, and you click, you’re given a script, an identity, suddenly you’re working for Pizza Hut and then someone calls what they think is Pizza Hut, it gets routed to your living room, you say, “Welcome to Pizza Hut,” you take the order, you type it in, you click send, and boom, it goes back out to the local Pizza Hut from the person calling, and the pizza gets delivered.

This is an interesting way of working, because it gives you enormous freedom, you can be in your own home, you can plug in or out after every single call.  You can work as much or as little as you like.  But it also is a lot of, if not constraint, surveillance.  The calls and interactions are recorded.  There are all sorts of metrics applied, so you’ll be told if you’re keeping up on the number of calls per hour that is expected for this range.  And then as you succeed at the little tasks, you get onto more and more complicated tasks.  LiveOps said that when Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana, the American Red Cross came up with an 800 number that people could call for information, try to find relatives.  Of course, the American Red Cross didn’t have enough people to staff it, and turned to LiveOps.  LiveOps immediately, boom, sent out the word and those LiveOps agents who were working at that moment all could transform themselves into American Red Cross representatives.

That’s the middle zone.  The zone below that is represented by Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.  This is a service whereby for maybe a penny, or a nickel, tasks that are repetitive, often boring, but that still require a human brain of some kind in order to complete, are put out for bid. And anyone with a Mechanical Turk account can perform the tasks.

So you might be asked to look at a picture and identify what you see in the picture and type in the keywords of what you see.  You might be told to go to a website and interact with it in a certain way.  Go to this blog and leave a comment with what you think.  Go to this review site and leave a positive review, must be five out of five stars.  That actually happened, was discovered, and the company behind it roundly denounced for astro-turfing.

And when you put these three things together, I think what you start to see is a way of harnessing mental energy in action that we just didn’t have before.  That can be very empowering, but it also makes me think about how easily one could put out the call to call your member of congress, tell them how much you hate or like healthcare reform.  And that call would be indistinguishable from that of any regular constituent, because you are a regular constituent.

You’ve just been primed by Mechanical Turk to do it, you then report on your call, maybe even send a transcript or a recording along and you get paid your nickel or your quarter or whatever else.  And that starts to mean that any mass movement becomes suspect, because we have no idea how it was motivated or who was asked.  Now, maybe word could get out that that was going on, but, as it happens more and more, it’s not clear how scandalous it would be, it’s just another set of tools used, just like we expect today that there will be television commercials aired or testimonials from people who have been prescreened on one issue or another.

So as we enter a world in which I imagine a subway car, which everybody in the car is basically traveling in silence, staring at a screen or talking quietly into something, and some of them are engineers, hoping to earn their $15,000, some of them are LiveOps people checking in with their white collar skills, and others are latter day mental click worker sweat shoppers doing one nickel task at a time.  I look at that subway car and I see a very different configuration than the one we have today, even if most people are silent, listening to their iPods.  So it’s a phenomenon worth keeping an eye on.

Recorded on August 18, 2009