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Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

Can This Journalist Be Replaced by Software and Mechanical Turk?

If you think your current boss is a drag, imagine being directed by a piece of software.

  • February 7, 2011

An experiment being conducted by an alliance of journalists and computer scientists aims to combine the distributed human brainpower of Amazon’s small-task outsourcing engine, Mechanical Turk, with a software boss pre-programmed with all the logic required to stitch myriad discrete human-accomplished tasks into something resembling the work of a single person.

Why hire a knowledge worker when a swarm of low-skilled laborers will do?

The project is called My Boss is a Robot, and the boffins involved include the team of Niki Kittur, a Carnegie Mellon assistant professor of Human Computer Interaction, as well as freelance science and technology writers Jim Giles and MacGregor Campbell.

The idea is simple: computer scientists have already used Mechanical Turk to create a simple encyclopedia entry about New York City. The entire process was overseen by software, not humans, and included everything from asking Turkers (as the distributed workers on Mechanical Turk are called) to come up with the topic areas the entry should cover to having them fact-check the writing of previous workers to whom those topics had been assigned.

Based on this success, it seems logical that Turkers might be able to transform a research paper into a 500 word piece of original science journalism. There are a million reasons this might not work, admit Giles and Campbell, but the exercise is meant to generate insight and discussion, whether or not it succeeds.

Similar efforts have run into problems before – AOL’s Demand Media-style ‘Seed’ content generation effort at first assigned articles to too many outsourced workers, resulting in potential interview subjects for pieces being flooded with calls from would-be interviewers. AOL calls its effort “Bionic Journalism,” for its fusion of human and machine.

Many other sites specialize in offering businesses and individuals related outsourcing services, from CloudFlower, which draws its workers from Mechanical Turk and Samasource, to CastingWords, which specializes in transcription.

Startup CloudCrowd is even working on a commercial version of the My Boss is a Robot experiment. Offered through Servio, the service will allow businesses to purchase blog posts (or “content”) that are “Fresh, Hand-Crafted, Topic-specific [and] Custom-Written to Your Specifications.”

My Boss is a Robot is an ongoing experiment that has only just begun, but its creators are chronicling the process on the project’s homepage. The deeper question its creators hope to answer is not whether or not there are English speakers in the developing world who would gladly do this blogger’s job for less, but whether or not the process of journalism itself – and for that matter just about any other kind of knowledge work – can be decomposed in advance in a way that will allow it to be carried out as a series of small, discrete tasks that can be managed by a machine and not a human.

Whatever the results of that experiment, progress in this area suggests that the future of knowledge work is outsourcing problems of every scale – not just moving entire call centers overseas, but even allowing office workers to dispatch small tasks to virtual assistants who can accomplish them for less than that worker’s hourly wage.

Follow Mims on Twitter or contact him via email.

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