My gruelling day as an Amazon Mechanical Turk

By Jeremy Wilson on August 28th, 2013

I’m contorted at my computer, holding a ruler against my screen with one hand and tapping out long lines of numbers with the other. Somehow, I’ve found myself copying a picture of someone’s Walmart receipt for an usually large quantity of lip balm, razors and first aid kits into digital form. The ruler is to try and help my eyes make sense of the rows of twelve-digit Universal Product Codes. It helps a bit.

I’m terrible at this. Really terrible. Finally, thirty-two Walmart items and thirty-six minutes of my time later I submit the fruits of my labour to an unknown entity; later I will find out if they deem my efforts worthy of payment and credit me $0.07. I have become a worker in Amazon’s artificial artificial intelligence program, Mechanical Turk, and it’s not going well.

Launched in 2005, Mechanical Turk takes its name from The Turk, an eighteenth-century chess-playing “machine”. The Turk appeared to beat its opponents using a complex clockwork mechanism; in fact, a chess master was hidden inside, pulling the strings.

Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos’ update on the concept doesn’t try to conceal the human intelligence powering the machine. In fact, human intelligence – humans behaving like machines behaving like humans, in fact – is what he is selling.

The business is straightforward. Employers can use the platform to offer simple tasks that still require carbon-based life forms to complete and reach a potential workforce of anyone with an internet connection, in return for a small wage. When a Mechanical Turk worker, or “Turker”, accepts a task, they complete it within an allotted time then wait for the employer to transfer the wage into their bank or Amazon account.

Typically, tasks pay from a couple of cents to a couple of dollars. Studies suggest that Turkers can earn between $1.20 and $5.00 an hour for this independent contract work.

In the eight years since its creation, Mechanical Turk has grown into a huge platform: it now has over half a million workers, of which fifty per cent are from the United States and forty per cent are from India.

My day as a Turker

Signing up was so easy I didn’t even have to sign up; I simply entered my Amazon log-in and ticked some boxes. The opening jargon sounded very promising: “work from home”, “choose your own work hours”, “get paid”. It sounded good.

The tasks offered aren’t any old tasks. They are called Human Intelligence Tasks (HITs) and I had 247,431 to choose from. I decided to start off with a HIT called “Copy Text from Business Card” that offered $0.02 to, well, copy text from a business card. How hard could it be?

But before I was unleashed on any real business cards, I had to start in training mode. Generously I was to be paid $0.02 for copying down the details of a fake card. The training mode proved to be useful: I got the name wrong, the address wrong and mixed up the fax and phone numbers. It took over ten minutes to get it right.

Then, fully qualified, I got down to transcribing the details of Business Development Specialists and looked forward to raking in the cash. But before long the slow grind started to get to me. It was just so boring. There had to be something more suited to my temperament.

I quit the business cards and looked for greener pastures. After an ill-fated flirtation with the aforesaid Walmart receipt, I found what looked to be perfect: a HIT called “Mimic 20 Facial Expressions”.

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Neutral, sad, surprised, fearful, frustrated, angry, confused, happy, disgusted. I spent twenty minutes pulling faces at my screen and made $1.50. My mouth was sore, but it beat the hell out of copying out receipts.

I spent twenty minutes pulling faces at my screen and made $1.50.

I continued my hunt for interesting HITs. Several which looked like link-building work caught my eye and I tried one called “Copy Weblink”. It was a quick and easy $0.25, but was a one-time gig.

I then came across a HIT which offered an intriguing bit of SEO: “Do a Google.fr search for “vanessa [redacted] georges clooney” and click on the first url”. I accepted, bagged myself $0.04 and forgot about Vanessa [redacted] until I came across another HIT. “Write a good and small text about 2 célebrities”.

The details were quite specific: “Write a good and small article about liason and rumor between 2 célebrities : Georges Clooney and french supermodel Vanessa [redacted] The text has to be positif saying how beautiful the couple is and how beautiful the model is ….

“Language is french or english and You can find some infos on internet about the 2 célébrities. To complete the work, you have to post it on a newsgroup or blogs ( no forum) and send me the link to validate.”

The Kernel is as close to a blog as I get so I hope it is acceptable to complete the HIT by posting my good and small article here.

My mate Pete saw George Clooneys and Vaneesa [redacted] sucking face round the back of McDonalds and he was totally fingerbangging her. Pete said George was really into her and not in a weird paternal way like with his exes. Not surprising really, cos Vanessa is well fit.

If that’s not worth $0.10 I don’t know what is.

Research monkey

There were also a number of HITs which looked like they were being run by academic institutions. I opened one offered by the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto and spent five minutes answering questions about the types of food I would eat to convey different emotions.

“Steak” seemed to cover most of the answers. If I were an academic researcher, I’m not sure I’d be happy with the quality of the answers I’d receive from Mechanical Turk. Anyway, another $0.45 in the bank.

I then found my favourite HIT: “Draw a Triangle”. The instructions were: “draw a triangle, save it, upload it, have fun and be creative”. I duly got creative and knocked out a pretty fetch triangle in Paint. I then sold it, my first piece of artwork, for $0.03.

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Flagging after my first honest few hours of work since the summer I spent hawking firewood from a Ford Transit, I absent-mindedly opened a HIT called “road image – labelling cracks”. In exchange for labelling cracks and potholes on American roads I would get paid $0.02 a picture.

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It was wonderful. No numbers or words to read, just drawing colouful lines on photos; this was definitely more on my level. It was almost like a mystery Google street view tour. I kept going for forty-five minutes until my tranquil zen was broken by the images starting to repeat themselves.

By this point my somewhat limited attention span was straining to breaking point, but I soldiered on and opened one final HIT. “Flag offensive content images”. I was presented with a large page of images and had to select any that contained nudity or any I thought some people might think  contained adult content.

It was clear that I wasn’t cut out to be a censor.

So I set to work filtering the granny selfies from pictures of cars and Kidd Rock. Lexus, Mike Tyson, spread beaver – this was easy. Phone charger, banana, Harry Styles, vagina.

Then things got trickier. I got stuck on an image of Miley Cyrus twerking into the crotch of Robin Thicke in his rapey Beetlejuice costume at the VMAs. The image is offensive by any objective standard, but I couldn’t bring myself to flag a picture of such cultural significance.

It was clear that I wasn’t cut out to be a censor, so I called a day on my Turking career. After around four hours of work I had completed forty HITs and been paid for twelve. Twenty-eight are pending. My total earnings stand at $2.05.

Who are these people?

Only 10% of the Americans who make up half the workers on Mechanical Turk say that the service is their primary income. The majority of them have at least some college experience and have household incomes between $25,000 and $60,000. Most are earning under $20 a week by working a few hours a day.

The most commonly cited reasons for Americans spending time on Mechanical Turk is it’s a more fruitful way to spend free time than watching TV: that it’s fun and it kills time.

As long as you avoid Walmart receipts and linkbait spam, it really isn’t that bad.

In India, on the other hand, the average hourly wage is around $0.30. It would make sense if the Indians flooding the site were eagerly exchanging real sweatshops for a digital one. But this isn’t the case: the service is the the primary income for only thirty per cent of Indian Turkers and again, the most cited reason for using Mechanical Turk is it’s a more fruitful way to spend free time.

I half-expected Mechanical Turk to be a window to some terrifying dystopian future, but as long as you avoid Walmart receipts and linkbait spam, it really isn’t that bad. In fact, if you have a better aptitude for mindless clicking games then me you might even find it enjoyable.

I won’t be returning to Mechanical Turk. I’m not cut out for it. But I have cashed in my earnings and I am spending them on a used copy of Khia’s “Thug Misses”. So to be honest it was four hours pretty well spent.

Editor’s Note: We have redacted the name of the French supermodel in question, who has no relationship with George Clooney, at the request of her agent.