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AI Software Technology

Crowdsourcing Makes an API For Human Intelligence 123

holy_calamity writes "A startup called MobileWorks claims to offer human-level intelligence to any piece of software, with APIs for image, text or speech processing that crowdsource tasks to workers in India. Unlike Amazon's Mechanical Turk, jobs can be sent in by software without human help and can also be completed in 'real time' with a turnaround of a few seconds. The company claims that for problems like OCR and image recognition it makes more sense to find ways to use human intelligence than developing complex custom algorithms." Not a bad plan — sounds like they've lifted a page from the business model of captcha-cracking spammers.
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Crowdsourcing Makes an API For Human Intelligence

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  • by pla ( 258480 ) on Monday August 29, 2011 @07:55PM (#37248318) Journal
    that crowdsource tasks to workers in India.

    Say, I have this great idea for harvesting more cotton by "crowdsourcing" the task to imported workers from Africa...

    Or does this "merely" mean that child labor has "shifted paradgms" from a reason to boycott a company, to a patentable business method?
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Doing a dull job voluntarily for a salary you agree to is not the same as slavery or abuse.

      • Right, you do have a lot of bargaining power when your whole family is dying of hunger. []

        I'm sure the workers all agreed to their salary.

        • by spazdor ( 902907 )

          This is a tricky topic. Are people better off in an abusive employment relationship than in none at all? The fact that anyone agrees to enter one seems to suggest "yes", but there are all sorts of ways an employer might have indirect control over the other factors in their workers' lives which contribute to the duress which compels them to work. It's fraught with moral hazards. :(

          • Very true. Bottom line is that it takes two things to make a decent work available. An economy that makes it worthwhile employing people, and legislation to make sure that working conditions and levels of pay are reasonable.

        • You would have to assume the kind of workers being hired for this work have literacy and numeracy skills that mark them out as being above the physical-labor-sweatshop conditions that you're referring to there. The most likely employees for this work are middle-class mothers with some education background - at least high school - and with some free time while raising the kids. Who are you to begrudge someone to earn a little money for their time?

        • by wisty ( 1335733 )

          So, I take it you have a better plan for how to take large amounts of money from developed countries (which are generally democracies, ruled by the stingy masses), and give them to people who need it?

          Remember 20 years ago, when Taiwan was a sweatshop, and all your cheap plastic toys came from there? Now they are as well off as Hong Kong (i.e. close to the US in living standards, without the US's fucked up health system).

          India might take longer to close the gap, but it will happen. Countries that don't trade

          • Taiwan (and mainland China after them, and Japan before them) developed industry, and infrastructure, and education, and science that come with it. Sure, people wanted money from exporting industrial products, but the real trick was that they have developed things that are usable locally.

            India has a huge chunk of its "export" in things that no one really can use locally, but foreigners can pay for -- call center script monkeys that basically shoo customers away without formally denying support, ultra-low-re

      • by blair1q ( 305137 )

        You've made two claims there that you have no evidence for.

        1. That they're doing this voluntarily. Acquiescing to coercion and deprivation is not volition, no matter how much the abuser wants it to be.

        2. That they agree to the salary. Ask people if they think their pay is fair. Most will say it is not, but what choice do they have?

        • by dakameleon ( 1126377 ) on Monday August 29, 2011 @08:44PM (#37248674)

          You've made two claims there that you have no evidence for.

          1. That they're not doing this voluntarily.

          2. That they don't agree to the salary.

          • by artor3 ( 1344997 )

            An AC made the original assertion, "Doing a dull job voluntarily for a salary you agree to is not the same as slavery or abuse."

            Blair1q countered by pointing out that the AC has no evidence that the workers are doing the job voluntarily or that they agree with their wages.

            You can't then counter that by saying, "but they might!"

            Burden of proof lies with those who make the initial argument, not with those you happen to disagree with.

            • AC was replying to the implication that crowdsourcing is analogous to slavery, or that this involves child labor, without any evidence or data to substantiate the claim. AC's point was that these guys are getting paid for a job they signed up for - Blair1q seemed to imply this was not the case.

              • It seems that people never get taken advantage of in your world. I used to believe that I would get a fair deal if I worked hard, and learnt the hard way that that is not so, because sociopathy seems to be a trait of management. Strange how the "Just World" hypothesis works.
        • You, sir, are too liberal for my liking.

    • +1 Make parent sticky please.

      Crowdsourcing: Slavery 2.0 with a social component, taken to the cloud. You don't even have to own your slaves anymore, we take the burden of having to feed and shelter them from you! Also, it's much more scalable, you don't know how well your cotton field is going to do, so you can start with one and scale up blazing fast when you need more! And you only pay for what you use from them.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        It's done on a computer, why not disguise the worker's end of the project as a game? Then you make a Facebook app out of it. Instead of working for money, they get points. With enough points they can dress up their little cartoon character in some virtual swag and do other things in associated mini-games. Of course this is done while keeping in mind to exploit the other aspects of social media and some people's competitive nature. Also if you package it just right, not only can you get free labor but you mi

    • by snero3 ( 610114 )

      Agree, your point is really well written.

      I would mod you up but I don't have mod point. Hmm maybe that is a job for "MobileWorks"

    • by prayag ( 1252246 ) <> on Monday August 29, 2011 @08:31PM (#37248584)
      I will just leave this here [] Full disclosure: I am one of the founders.
      • by pla ( 258480 )
        I will just leave this here [] [] Full disclosure: I am one of the founders.

        If not just a PR talking point, then I sincerely wish you the best of luck.

        I see this as a much too slippery slope to tread lightly, though.
        • by prayag ( 1252246 ) <> on Monday August 29, 2011 @08:43PM (#37248670)
          It's not. We believe that paying fair wages would improve the quality of the work which is a very import value proposition for us.
          • If this is anything like Digital Divide Data [], then I wish you the best of luck. We studied the HBR case study [] (sorry, paywall) in one of my MBA classes, the prof was friends with one of the founders, they are doing good things.
          • by Eivind ( 15695 )

            I'd feel better about it if you quantified anything. There ain't many companies around who do -not- claim to pay fair wages, but there's widely differing opinions about what is "fair".

            Your "pricing" page says nothing about prices, and you "fair wages" page says absolutely nothing about wages. Without a firm public commitment, it's impossible for prospective customers to judge your estimate of fair.

            So, what is "fair" wages to you ?

          • " import value proposition" Oh, you people who spout big, ambiguous words thinking that it confuses the rest of us stupid people.
      • Well, that is definitely a step in the right direction. What processes are in place to ensure that people are actually doing the work well? That's a big problem with Mechanical Turk.
        • by prayag ( 1252246 )
          First of all treating your workers fairly, providing them support and helping them if they are stuck. We have a number of algorithms in place on top of that to make sure that the answers are high quality.
      • You are going to have a very difficult time convincing advocates of "fair trade" that the solution to economies rife with fractional employment and piecework is more fractional employment and piecework.

        • For poor people we call it "fractional employment and piecework"
          For the working class we call it contracting.
          For the middle class we call it consulting or freelancing.

          Surely the classic problem in the third world is not the mechanics of payment for work done. It's that they are poor because there is little work and/or the work is poorly paid. New fair trade initiatives DO incrementally tackle these problems regardless of whether they are piece work, hourly paid or salaried.

      • by siddesu ( 698447 )

        Well, since you chose to advertise here, you can perhaps answer several questions.

        How do you define the "sustainable" word that appears on your page? What does it mean, technically, in monetary terms? Minimum wage? X% over minimum wage? "Enough to sustain a person at poverty line +X% if he works 8 hours a day for us"? Or something else? Since you brag about it, you owe us some explanation. Without it your website looks like so much buzzword-compliant PR.

        Are you considered an employer to the people who are

      • by gl4ss ( 559668 )

        the problem is the scale, checking it up that people use it for financing their little girls education instead of using their little girls for the work is expensive and nigh impossible.

        quick tip: that fair trade work page is cliche to the max with NOTHING OF SUBSTANCE, so if you're serious about the fairness add up some examples of actual pay for what kind of work. I mean, if you're not going to just sell captcha busting at floor bottom slavery prices.. More importantly, if it's not such slave work and the

    • by Jonner ( 189691 )

      that crowdsource tasks to workers in India.

      Say, I have this great idea for harvesting more cotton by "crowdsourcing" the task to imported workers from Africa...

      Or does this "merely" mean that child labor has "shifted paradgms" from a reason to boycott a company, to a patentable business method?

      Of course this business model could be abused to exploit people, but would this one be more likely to result in abuse than tech support or clothing manufacture?

    • Or does this "merely" mean that child labor has "shifted paradgms"...

      Yes. It means the kids are not in one place thus eliminating exposure to the public eye like say someone in prison. []

  • Are we Emergents, or are we Qeng Ho?
  • You don't want your data actually being seen by someone somewhere which is the case in many business applications I would think.
    • by prayag ( 1252246 )
      We recommend developers to divide data into very small micro-tasks that makes sure that the quality is high and takes care of the privacy concerns. This is what we do in applications we develop in-house.
  • This is only really a viable solution while labor is cheap. As soon as labor gets more expensive so do costs. It won't take much to make it cheaper to hire part time minimum wage help to solve the same problems...

    • Solution: keep people in poverty, prevent local economy from developing, pay local elite generously so they will help you to enslave the rest of the population.

  • Sort of defeats the purpose though, doesnt it? The reason you would want software to do OCR is that the software is (almost) infinitely scalable. Humans are not. And if you are trying to break a captcha or something like that, even *a few seconds"(though I find their claim a bit dubious) still severely limits your effectiveness vs. smart software that can do it in a few microseconds.
  • Kinda obvious innit? You could easily have a normal website which from time to time pops up a question or whatever which you could answer for 5c or whatever. Easy job for poor people to do.

    But this is not technology is supposed to work innit?

  • by Crashmarik ( 635988 ) on Monday August 29, 2011 @08:11PM (#37248428)
    People will never be replaced by robots, because people are cheaper and you don't need to fix them when they break
    • That is called sick days...and guess who pays? ;)
      • by Anonymous Coward

        Lots of sick days for outsourced employees in the developing world, eh?

      • by DogDude ( 805747 )
        In the US, the employee does!
    • by gl4ss ( 559668 )

      People will never be replaced by robots, because people are cheaper and you don't need to fix them when they break

      hahahahahahahaahah. but people who build robots build other things cheaper and better. see ford vs. vw.

    • but they're slower, less accurate, can't work 24/7/, might sue, and take time to train. And they're only cheaper...for now.

  • really timothy? really?!!!!

    maybe you should crowdsource your spelling and grammar checking to India.
  • by blair1q ( 305137 ) on Monday August 29, 2011 @08:36PM (#37248628) Journal

    No need to remember anything anymore. Sorry, Phil.

  • ... a communications channel to my gut bacteria [].

  • An interesting aspect of this concept is that it is fairly future-proof. Without changing the API, the company can change seamlessly the internal processes:
    First getting humans to do tasks that are difficult for computers (like audio transcripts).
    As computers improve in capability the humans can check the transcripts performed by computers, and use the feedback to improve further the capability of the computers.
    And finally let the computers do the task without supervision and/or sell the software that h
  • So this seem designed for breaking capchas. Are they going to try to restrict the OCR function or ???
  • In what way is MobileWorks different to this []?
  • But a worker that accepts one of these positions probably has nothing better, as as the saying goes: better crowdsourcing than no-sourcing.

  • A couple of years ago I was involved with a project doing large-scale digitalization on old texts; we found that having it typed up by humans in India was more accurate than the OCR software we had available. We developed some software to streamline this process (mainly a dedicated editor that provided the markup we needed without unneccessary clutter).

  • Seems like a lot of problems would have to be carfully mapped to such a systems... or, basically, you have to ask a crowdsource systems your questions carefully. It might be tempting to think that a crowd acts like a nondeterministic Turing machine, but it really doesn't because the space of possible solutions it might try to verify is bounded by the pool of respondents (not just the size of the pool, but what you might call the "imaginative range" of the pool). Oh, and this really reminds me of Vernor Vi
  • That the rep for the company, Prayag, is on this thread and answering questions and issues, but he doesn't respond to the question that keeps getting asked: How much, in numbers, is a "fair wage" for these workers?

    Quit avoiding the question. Otherwise we are going to assume the only thing you've invented is the crowdsourced sweatshop (look, exploitative corporations! all the benefits of a sweatshop without having to rent or maintain a space!).

  • So is the future of this digging gold or writing term papers for athletic scholars?
    I'd think most useful would be to hire PhDs or maybe sysadmins who are very well studied but live in places where a little money goes a long way in terms of standard of living.
    You could even extrapolate this to allow someone in a cosmopolitan area to hire a colleague who has moved into the boondocks. No API for that yet though.. and APIs make people interchangeable which is a problem. Dooms this system to low grade jobs and l

  • There has been a lot of question about fair wage in the thread. So to answer everybody, the fair wage depends a lot on region, currency etc. We partner a lot of with local organization such as NGOs. Many of our members are house wives or are unemployed for whom the big difference having no access to work at all. Average wages vary from $1.50 to $2 per hour (this is in developing countries mind you).

They are called computers simply because computation is the only significant job that has so far been given to them.