They are the invisible labourers whose toil in the digital economy powers many rising technology firms.
Crowdworkers pick up the slack where artificial intelligence meets its limits. They do small online data tasks, on an outsourced basis and usually from home, that involve basic computer skills, from labelling images and transcription to identifying pornography, which machines and algorithms alone cannot manage. The work is often repetitive and simple but requires human judgment and insight.
There are no exact figures but active crowdworkers are believed to number hundreds of thousands globally, with most concentrated in the US and India.
Champions of this emerging sector say the work is flexible and provides a path out of poverty for people in developing nations, as well as a financial lifeline in countries with weak social safety nets. Its critics say that the often minimal pay — sometimes as low as 50 cents an hour — and absence of employment rights, such as guaranteed work, sick pay and holidays, sits uneasily with the world-changing aspirations of the tech entrepreneurs and engineers who farm out the mouse-clicking and keyboard-tapping assignments.
“It’s not like a nine to five [job], where the same work is available to you,” says 27-year-old Ozlem Demirci, who lives in the US. “I call $20 [a] day a fantastic day. Some days I earn just a couple of dollars.”
This emerging but disparate virtual workforce is increasingly trying to tip the scales back in its favour.
Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, dubbed MTurk, is the best known and biggest crowdwork marketplace with a pool of 500,000 workers worldwide, according to the online retailen.
Although they are geographically dispersed, crowdworkers are establishing digital versions of mutual aid and workplace solidarity. There are internet forums where Turkers, as they call themselves, share tips, experiences of particular requesters, boast about their task tallies and air anxieties about work drying up or paying too little.
Crowdsourcing companies’ ability to get round statutory minimum wages is being challenged in the US. A California court has been asked to approve a financial settlement between San Francisco-based CrowdFlower and two of its former workers, who claimed breach of federal minimum wage laws. Ellen Doyle, a lawyer for one of the claimants, says that although the case will not set a precedent, such actions could in her view eventually lead to crowdworkers being reclassified as employees instead of their present status as independent contractors. “