Work and the Internet
26 July 2010 | 1:38 pm

For context about why I care, here is a slight paraphrasing from grant proposal I recently wrote:
For the last eight years, I have been working to develop an area of computer science called "human computation," which studies how to harness the combined power of humans and computers to solve problems that would be impossible for either to solve alone. This growing academic field now has an annual workshop, a community with researchers from the top computer science programs in the world, and has directly influenced the popular online trend of crowdsourcing, in which crowds of people are enticed to perform work over the Internet. Subsequent to the development of this area, for example, Amazon created Mechanical Turk, a marketplace for human computation tasks (or “human intelligence tasks” as they call them), which is now used and studied by hundreds of researchers worldwide. Since then, other similar services have emerged where workers are paid to perform micro-tasks that are hard for computers.

An example of human computation is reCAPTCHA, in which people help digitize books by typing CAPTCHAs on the Internet. To date, over 750 million unique people—more than 10% of humanity—have helped transcribe at least one word through reCAPTCHA.

All human computation systems must have a way to motivate the users to participate. In the case of reCAPTCHA, the value proposition is as follows: by typing a CAPTCHA, the user gets access to a desired resource like a free email account or tickets to a concert, and in exchange they perform ten seconds of work that is utilized to help transcribe a book. In the case of Mechanical Turk, users are paid a few cents to perform each task.

A discussion that I've had with multiple people over the last few years is whether systems like Mechanical Turk, in which real money is exchanged, should be legislated so that workers are fairly compensated. You see, the average hourly rate of most workers in such sites is usually well below the minimum wage of most third world countries. As a concrete example, the minimum wage in Guatemala is approximately $1/hour, whereas it's not rare to see tasks on Mechanical Turk in which the effective hourly rate is $0.30/hour. (It's amazing that many of the workers on Mechanical Turk come from inside the United States.) Some labor economists would tell you that this is ok: if people are willing to work for such low rates, who is to stop them? However, most countries have some notion of a minimum wage in their laws, including the United States, so in essence as a country we do not believe in an unregulated labor market.

Recently I have heard more than one company saying something like: "We use Mechanical Turk because otherwise we would have to pay people $7/hour to do this task." In other words: "We use Mechanical Turk to get around the minimum wage laws." As wrong as it may sound to some, this is currently ok. In the United States, "independent contractors" are typically not covered by minimum wage laws, so while I'm not a lawyer I believe using Mechanical Turk to get around minimum wage is as legal as hiring independent contractors instead of full-time employees.

But the question remains: Should sites like Mechanical Turk be regulated? Perhaps not today, but if the Internet or crowdsourcing really is the future of work, we should at least be thinking about it.

Here are some issues that make this complicated:

  • Labor markets like Mechanical Turk are truly global, with workers coming from many different countries. Can the same minimum wage be applied to all?

  • Most countries have immigration work laws that prevent people without the proper visa to work inside that country. Should these still apply when the work is performed over the Internet? In many cases it's not even possible to tell where the worker is located, so are these laws even enforceable?

  • Assume we decide as a country that labor markets like Mechanical Turk should be legislated and a minimum wage is imposed. Some of the work on human computation involves transforming tasks into enjoyable games so that people perform them in exchange for entertainment. Is it ok to pay people less (or nothing) if the task is fun?

  • What about writing a review for a book online or rating a video? These are concrete pieces of work that benefit the Web sites, but that nobody seems to object to doing for free.

  • Research versus Teaching
    19 June 2010 | 3:01 pm

    My previous post stirred some people's emotions. Reading the comments, it seems part of that came from the tension between teaching and research in modern American universities.

    In most countries, the role of universities is solely to educate their students. That's true of many colleges in the United States, but not of Research I universities. The majority of American universities you've heard of belong to this category: Harvard, Yale, UCLA, Stanford, MIT, CMU, Princeton, etc. In addition to teaching, these institutions have another equally important role, which is to produce high-quality research that benefits society. Indeed, many of the game-changing discoveries or inventions in the last century have been entirely or partly developed at American Research I universities: The Internet, Google, the cure for polio, vitamin D milk, even Gatorade. To a large extent, this is where Nobel prizes are won, and where the future is invented.

    American Research I universities are also mostly responsible for educating the smartest people in the country (or even the world), both at the graduate and undergraduate levels. This includes most doctors, lawyers, politicians, US presidents, dot com billionaires, and yes, even Lady GaGa.

    Combining these two very important roles may have benefits, but it also causes an unspoken tension. Is the job of a professor primarily to educate or to do research?

    The interesting thing is that everybody seems to have a different opinion about this. Students and their paying parents, of course, think professors are there solely to educate; Professors mostly think they are there to do research; and university administrators seem to change their tune depending on whom they’re talking to.

    As usual with me, I have more questions than answers. Should research and education be combined in this manner? Should professors primarily concentrate on research or teaching?

    Regardless of what should happen, I can tell you that at least from a tenure-track professor’s point of view, the system at the vast majority of Research I universities is extremely biased towards the research side. Most of my friends at other universities chose to be professors because they want to do research without being pressed by economic outcomes like they would in a company, and consider teaching a bearable chore that they must do to get the freedom and prestige of being a professor. The hiring of faculty (at least at the ~15 Research I universities that have offered me a job) pays almost no attention to the potential quality of the candidates as teachers. The tenure process also puts teaching in the back seat. So in essence, professors are largely not selected, evaluated, or rewarded based on teaching.

    This is not to say that there are no good teachers among the faculty at Research I universities. Many of the faculty both here at CMU and elsewhere are outstanding instructors and work very hard on their teaching. However, they do so out of pure love (and possibly a misconceived sense of duty), because the system is not set up for this.

    Since I don’t want to get in trouble again with the commenters, I will end with a few disclaimers. First, I do spend a significant amount of time on my teaching (as evidenced by having won the teaching award). Second, there are very good institutions that educate smart people in the US that are not Research I universities and that concentrate solely on teaching.

    Outsourcing My Research Group
    16 June 2010 | 5:19 pm

    A PhD student at Carnegie Mellon costs approximately $80,000 per year. (Research programmers and post-docs cost about the same.) Given that PhD students have to take classes for the first couple of years and are therefore running at 50% capacity, this means that each effective person in my research group costs on average $100,000 per year.

    I'm from Guatemala. For $100,000, you can hire 4-5 extremely competent full-time engineers there (even accounting for the 50% overhead rate inside CMU). My question today is: would it make sense to take 5 engineers instead of a PhD student next time I have extra money?

    I understand that CMU PhD students have a much higher IQ than the average programmer, and that for certain tasks you can't just rely on programmers, but if the exchange rate is 5 to 1, I think the experiment is worth a try.

    And from there, it's a slippery slope: why not just move my whole research group to India or China, since a large fraction of our PhD students come from there anyways?

    Part of the goal of being a professor is mentoring, and I love that part: I am not saying we should get rid of PhD students, but that perhaps a mix of some outsourced coding and PhD students would be a better investment for everybody.

    Disclaimer: 100% of my PhD students are working on projects of their own choosing, and if anything my biggest flaw as an advisor is not giving them enough direction (instead of micromanaging them).

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