In Return of the Crowds, Aytes compares Amazon’s crowdsourcing platform, Mechanical Turk, to the Automaton Chess Player also known as “Mechanical Turk” or the “Turk,” that was constructed in the late eighteenth century by Wolfgang von Kempelen and was a popular attraction in Europe. It is easy to comprehend why Amazon chose to name its digital labor market after the chess-playing machine.
The “Turk” was a life-size model, dressed in traditional Turkish garb that appeared to be a formidable chess-playing machine. The presenters of the “Turk” toured Europe challenging opponents to try to beat the automaton that would often win matches against the (human) players. Like a magician, the presenter would make a point of showing the audience that the cabinet under the desk the ‘Turk” sat at was filled with only machinery, as he spun the cabinet around, opening doors. In fact it was all an illusion and there was a chess master hidden inside the desk controlling the chess pieces with the help of magnets and string.
In Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, humans are used to perform Human Intelligence Tasks (HITS) that computers cannot easily do. Amazon turned to humans when its attempt at using artificial intelligence failed at certain tasks. There were some things that the computer could not accomplish – they required human intelligence. But while human beings are performing these tasks, they are “hidden” in a sense, behind the machine, much like the chess player was hidden in the cabinet. The workers (known as “Turkers”) are paid ridiculously small amounts of money per task and they have no direct contact with the “requesters” for whom they are completing the tasks. Amazon promises its clients an online workforce that will make their companies appear brilliant, while the Turkers, like the chess master, stay virtually invisible as they are “pulling the strings.”
Besides the extremely low pay associated with each HIT, Turkers are not even guaranteed to be paid that .01 or .10 agreed upon fee after they complete the task. The requester can accept or reject the work and still keep the rejected work, profiting from it but not paying the worker. Besides not receiving payment, the Turker will receive a lower online rating, making it more difficult to get more work. So the Turker is invisible in more ways than one. The public is made to think that they are dealing with a sophisticated computerized program while the invisible Turkers are working for pennies behind the scenes to maintain the illusion for the companies that utilize Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.