Amazon’s MTurk program reveals the legal grey areas of capitalism

David Hormell


Amazon’s Mechanical Turk program is curiously named after an automated machine capable of playing chess. Or at least, that’s what Benjamin Franklin thought. It wasn’t an artificial intelligence at all, just illusory sleight of hand. The mechanical chess player appeared to respond to opponents, but was secretly controlled by an anonymous chess player, out of view.

Now, 235 years later, Amazon championed this spirit of anonymity and created the Mechanical Turk service, or MTurk for short. MTurk is a self-described “marketplace for work that requires human intelligence.”

According to Amazon, human intelligence means “thousands of high quality, global, on-demand workers.” The MTurk program may seem innovative or even profitable on the surface. It isn’t.

It’s a legal and moral grey area revealing the colder side of capitalism.


The crowd-sourced nature of MTurk maintains a sweeping scope, which translates to low wages.Some academics and Silicon Valley nerds use the platform as quick means to collect data. Gone are recruitment costs associated with promotional campaigns designed to attract participants. The participants are here.

The MTurk user interface looks like a plain forum, filled with generalized descriptions of  tasks (i.e. take survey, translate document, categorize items, etc.) posted by a requester (the person posting the task) and the reward for completing the task. The instant reward is linked through Amazon Pay and typically hovers anywhere from a penny to a couple of dollars.

At the time of writing, there are 867 jobs posted. One job suggests 2 hours, but only offers a penny in return. One job named “Object Bounding Boxes” requires the worker to draw a box around an indicated object in 50 different pictures. It’s 2018, but artificial intelligence and search engines still struggle to understand what pots and pans or trees and general shrubbery look like.

The suggested time for this task was one hour. The reward was $0.08.


I surveyed friends and family. Most were baffled by the prospect. A common question followed: why would anyone agree to sign up to work for such a platform? The answer is complex, due to the hypothetical nature of wage speculation.

Some workers hold multiple jobs and use MTurk on the side to make spare change. Some workers may be geographically limited in some way. Whatever the case, the implications presented are insidious and far-reaching.

In “How Crowdworkers Became the Ghosts in the Digital Machine” Moshe Z. Marvit said a worker’s experience with MTurk is an addiction. After stumbling on the program, she completed a few tasks and saw the instantaneous transfer. It was a few pennies, but it was something.

Marvit writes “Computers are very good at certain sorts of tasks … however, they are less able to perform others, such as detecting a positive or negative bias in an article, recognizing irony, accurately reading the text off a photograph.”

The good news here is that computers and AI won’t take over the world (yet). But Amazon’s cleanly consolidated micro-labor experiment calls upon wordsmiths, copy editors and graphic designers. Jobs are being completed for pennies, and that’s a terrifying prospect for college graduates.

The anonymous nature of both employers and employees makes the lofty thought of unionizing nearly impossible. MTurk is a sweeping example of unseen worker exploitation. It’s a conduit of cheap labor.

I don’t think things will change unless Amazon levels the playing field. But as CEO Jeff Bezos’ net worth swells to over 121 billion, I have trouble believing that the MTurk experiment will even be on his radar. It’s an unseen problem, one Amazon automatically assumes distance from.