The ‘microworkers’ making your digital life possible
“I used to have an office but sadly I had to close it down,” says former dentist Michelle Muñoz of her life amid crisis-hit Venezuela.
With a collapsed economy and hyperinflation, “people don’t have enough money to afford a dentist and have to worry about food, education and other things”, she adds.
Two years ago she swapped her dental practice for online work as part of the global army of hidden “microworkers” – performing tasks that machines alone cannot.
Think of a day in your “digital life”. Whether it’s your phone’s search engine recommending relevant restaurants or a music app’s suggested playlist – none of this would be possible without microworkers.
They help provide data for machine learning algorithms that are the basis of Artificial Intelligence (AI) by adding the human element.
They might draw bounding boxes around footage of roads to teach driverless cars what a tree, obstacle or a moving person look like, or tag content with feelings so algorithms can learn what a “sad” song sounds like or whether a text or word is “worrying.”
This work often gets a bad press as it’s seen as poorly paid, but for many it is a solution. Michelle says microworking has been her only way of earning an income: “I do much better with this than as a dentist.”
She tells the BBC of a good day when she earned about $80, which she used to buy the smartphone she now uses to work.
Back in 2005, Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos called crowdsourced microwork the “artificial Artificial Intelligence” when he set up the Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) the world’s first crowdsourcing marketplace. It was named after an 18th Century hoax that fooled chess players into thinking they were competing against a machine, instead of the chess master hiding inside a large wooden box with a dummy on top.
Amazon first used it to weed out millions of duplicate pages as computers could not notice subtle differences. But as no one person could do this, they broke it down into small tasks that could be completed by thousands of workers.
There are no official numbers for how many microworkers there are, but tens of thousands are estimated to work on Amazon’s MTurk every month, with up to 2,500 being active at any given time – mostly in the US and India.
An International Labour Organisation (ILO) survey of 3,500 microworkers in 75 countries found the average age was 33 and a third were women, though this dropped to a fifth in developing countries.
Microworkers are also educated: fewer than 18% had a high-school diploma or less, 37% had a graduate degree, 20% a postgraduate degree; more than half specialised in science and technology, 23% in engineering and 22% in IT.
For those in countries in crisis, microwork can be especially useful.
Yahya Ayoub Ahmed is a Syrian who fled the civil war and is now in the Darashakran refugee camp in Erbil, Iraq. In the camp, an organisation called Preemptive Love taught him the English and IT skills allowing him to become a microworker.
“You can use it remotely and generate income. Over here applying for a job is quite difficult, it’s not like you can just Google a job,” he says. “This allows you to work without having to apply and send a CV.”
But there is an extra hurdle for workers in