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30.10.2010 13:00

At Microtask Assembly Lines Go Online

When the Assembly Line Moves Online

DO one assigned task on your computer. It shouldn't take you more than two seconds. Repeat 14,399 times. Congratulations! Your eight-hour work day is complete.

No such workplace yet exists, but with the fiendishly clever creation of standardized two-second tasks, delivered to any computer connected to the Internet, it is now technically possible to set up.

Microtask , a start-up company in Finland, has come up with the software that delivers such tasks. The company offers to take on "dull, repetitive work" - like digitizing paper forms or business cards - for prospective clients. As it says in a video on its Web site, "Microtask loves the work you hate."

Microtask is in a position to love that work because not one of its 12 employees actually performs it. Its software carves a given task into microscopically small pieces, like transcribing a handwritten four-digit number in a tiny rectangle on a form. (Handwritten numbers and letters are the bane of text-recognition software.) These tasks, stripped of identifying information about the client or the larger task, can then be distributed online anywhere.

The approach shows how the online concept of widely distributed work has evolved since it was pioneered by the Mechanical Turk service, introduced by Amazon.com in 2005. Mechanical Turk resembles an online bulletin board. Businesses post income-earning opportunities, with rewards for each task completed. Turkers, as the independent contractors are informally called, choose a task they like and are qualified for. Recent offers included 2 cents each for finding the contact information for 7,500 hotels and 3 cents each for answering questions about 9,400 toys.

Miriam Cherry, an associate professor of law at the University of the Pacific, tried Mechanical Turk and says she found out for herself that the compensation was meager. "My assistant and I tried but we couldn't make minimum wage," says Professor Cherry, who presented an argument last year in the Alabama Law Review for extending minimum-wage laws into cyberspace.

Kay Kinton, a spokeswoman for Amazon, countered that a client using Mechanical Turk might pay 50 cents for transcription of a one-minute audio clip, a rate that "can add up quickly."

Turkers can choose their tasks and when they want to work. Microtaskers, however, will have no say about what tasks come flowing in. They will be full-time employees of other businesses, such as a Finnish insurer that has put employees in an office in the Baltics to work on digitizing the company's paper forms, using Microtask software. Microtask will keep workers focused on a single screen, supplying everything needed to complete the task, without having to surf the Web for additional information. That's why it can assume that one of its microtasks can be completed within two seconds.

It's easy to see how transcribing one field on a form wouldn't take any longer than that. But how could anyone manage to perform that same task thousands of times in quick succession?

"The grand vision is to have many kinds of different tasks," says Ville Miettinen, Microtask's chief executive. "For example, you'd do five minutes of text recognition work, followed by a few minutes of speech transcription, and then a few minutes of comparing pairs of product images to determine whether the two photographs depict the same product - machines have a hard time figuring this out."

Such variety can't yet be offered, Mr. Miettinen says, because the service is too new; it is only now landing its first paying clients. Microtask is negotiating with call centers to use their employees to do its work during lulls, he says.

CloudCrowd, based in San Francisco, also offers to distribute clients' work online. Like Microtask, it has found ways to break work into thin slices.

"Rather than crowdsourcing, we call what we do widesourcing," says Mark Chatow, the company's vice president for marketing. "We take tasks like translation that used to be done by a single specialist and break them into pieces so a wide range of people can handle different parts of the work."

CloudCrowd uses machine translation software to make a first pass. Then it sends out individual pages of the machine's translation to garble hunters, who look for sentences containing a nonsensical sequence. A translator with native language fluency is needed only for the sentences tagged by the garble hunter. An editor, without foreign language expertise, then polishes the prose, but possesses only a single page, not a chapter or the entire work.

CloudCrowd exclusively uses Facebook members who come to it for assignments; it says it has 50,000 workers in its crowd. Traditional translation costs about 20 to 25 cents a word, Mr. Chatow, says, but "we're doing it for 6.7 cents a word." He says translators make an average of $15 an hour and garble hunters around $7 an hour.

Mr. Miettinen of Microtask says, "Pure monetary compensation is a 20th-century concept." He envisions tapping the talents of game designers who would render clickwork fun, what he calls "game-ification." If successful, it could minimize complaints about pitiful pay or soul-draining boredom.

PROFESSOR CHERRY is wary of this vision. She has studied Chinese "gold farmers," who play games for long hours on behalf of first-world gamers to earn virtual currency. "What makes a game a game is being able to control where and for how long one plays," she says. To those Chinese gamers-for-hire, "games are work."

Worker control is precisely what the Microtask model has engineered out - that's the source of its insidious efficiency. Just as Ford's assembly lines a century ago brought work to workers who performed a single, repetitive task, Microtask's software, via the Internet, does the same.

Every two seconds.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/31/business/31digi.html