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Jonathan Zittrain on minds for sale

The first Liberation Technology seminar of the winter quarter on January 6, featured Jonathan Zittrain, Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. Zittrain focused his talk entitled, Minds for Sale, on the variety of online platforms that harness the wisdom of crowds today, and closed with a discussion of the implications of these platforms. Categorizing these new tools by the breadth of their user base, Zittrain began by describing the platforms that pay the most money per task, require the most skill, and subsequently have the least participation. Key examples of these platforms are listed below, and organized by their decreasing level on skill.

  •  Xprize Foundation attempts to prompt radical breakthroughs through competitions for large quantities of prize money.
  • InnoCentive creates a marketplace between engineers and scientists to encourage innovation.
  • LiveOps, which bills itself as a contact center cloud, has developed a large set of independent contractors who are designated specific tasks when they sign in to the site. They may be assigned to answer calls placed to a restaurant or emergency hotline or to make political calls on behalf of Liveops clients.
  • Samasource offers "dignified digital work for women, children and refugees" located in developing countries.
  • Amazon Mechanical Turk (also known as Artificial Artificial Intelligence) allows users to participate in anonymous, minimally paid tasks. These tasks can be submitted by any party and are highly disaggregated among hundreds or thousands of users, each of whom receives a payout of between approximately one to fifteen cents for completing the task.
  • Soylent, which calls itself "a word processor with a crowd inside" embeds workers from Mechanical Turk into Microsoft Word. When users install the site's Shortn add-in into Microsoft Word, they can use the tool to have written samples shortened in two minutes. In order to achieve this, the written sample is disaggregated by paragraphs, and each paragraph is shortened within two minutes by a "Turker"-a user who accepts the task on Mechanical Turk.
  • Microtask enables disaggregating previously sensitive data to be work processed from a scanned image. The ultimate goal of this group is to put distributed work into video and computer games. For now, they disaggregate larger tasks into two-second tasks that can be distributed across a crowd.
  • Games With A Purpose (GWAP) has a game-like platform designed to get users to complete disaggregated tasks for virtual points, rather than for actual remuneration. One of its more popular activities quickly attracted 23,000 players who contributed 4.1 million labels to images they were presented with in The ESP Game. Many players routinely play more than 20 hours a week.

Next, Zittrain moved on to offer some additional examples, hypothetical scenarios and questions that highlight some of his own concerns about the potential of these technologies. One key question is whether this market may be too efficient at linking up solvers and payers, if certain tasks are not in fact beneficial for society. After all, it was highly contentious when Texas governor Rick Perry set up video cameras on Texas' border with Mexico and invited people to watch the video feeds and report if they saw anything suspicious. Similarly, a site called InternetEyes allows users to watch video feed from CCTV cameras in the UK for free, offering the chance to "earn reward money, have a chance at reducing crime, and potentially become a hero and save lives," instead of actual compensation.

In another example, the University of Colorado Police Department recently offered a $50 reward for identification of students shown to be smoking marijuana in photos from a large April 20 gathering. Hypothetically, the Iranian government could use Turkers to identify Iranian protestors through national ID photographs in the very same way; by Zittrain's calculations, this task could be disaggregated and carried out quickly at a cost of only $17,000 per protester identified.

Another cluster of issues relates to the use of anonymous users to carry out disaggregated tasks that may have the effect of exerting influence on others. For example, Turkers were recently offered the opportunity to write a positive 5 out of 5 review for a product on a website, which hundreds accepted and completed for a few cents at a time. Users on SubvertandProfit.com are paid to "Like" something on Facebook, "Digg" something, or show their approval of a site or product via some other social network. The users are remunerated for their effort, and the site also profits. Taking this a step further, these platforms also enable users to pay people to evince opinions on legislative issues they do not actually care about. For example, health insurers were recently caught paying Facebook gamers virtual currency to oppose the health reform bill. By enabling any task to be disaggregated and monetized, these new platforms can have highly controversial and unethical implications.