Talk:Minds for Sale

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Professor Jonathan Zittrain began the Minds for Sale session describing an experiment by an NYU researcher, which showed that strangers may be willing to help out with a task even if they’re not paid for it. (Specifically, strangers helped the experimenter’s robots reach point B, from point A, in New York City.) Zittrain described a pyramid of tasks, whereby, for very difficult tasks (at the top of they pyramid), one would need to put up a large amount of money to elicit a stranger to complete the task. For very simple tasks, a large number of people would be willing to perform the tasks for very little money. An example of an emerging platform toward the top end of the pyramid is X PRIZE Foundation, which offers prize money for teams who complete projects for the benefit of humanity. Further down the pyramid is Innocentive- where firms can solicit workers to perform complicated engineering tasks for prize money. Further still, is Liveops, where firms can solicit “contractors” to perform tasks from home, via the phone- like taking drive through orders for fast food restaurants, potentially thousands of mile away. Zittrain described Amazon’s Mechanical Turk as a forum toward the bottom of the pyramid. During the session, students posted an MTurk request for Turkers to post questions or answers on a question tool board. ILaw participants were able to watch Turkers complete the task, entering questions and answers to the question forum, in real time.

One underlying concern that Professor Zittrain expressed is that MTurk and similar sites could be used to solicit questionably ethical tasks. For example, companies can pay for Turkers to post positive reviews about a particular product, pretending that they actually own the product. A separate concern was exemplified by an organization that paid individuals to write letters to their senators, opposing certain legislation. Zittrain suggested that we might lose our ability to accurately gage public sentiment on political or social issues, when companies or organizations can pay individuals to attend town hall meetings or write letters in support or opposition of certain legislation, for example. Moreover, a concern might arise even if Turkers are paid to do kind acts for others. If such MTurk requests became widespread, we might be left wondering every time somebody was kind to us whether they were doing it because they were paid.

Another potentially worrisome issue that Zittrain noted is that children can be solicited to “work” when they think they are “playing” games on the computer. Even if the work they are doing is not morally questionable, many iLaw participants expressed concern that children can be exploited to perform work. There seemed to be a spectrum of viewpoints on this issue, but the class on a whole was even more greatly opposed to children doing work via games, when the work was morally questionable. The class began to discuss, but did not resolve, the factors that make it more or less acceptable or reprehensible for children to perform work via games. A final concern that Zittrain expressed was that with the proliferation of easy “tasks” that people can perform, for money (or points) from their homes, people will lose their leisure time.