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Amazon's Mechanical Turkers want to be recognized as 'actual human beings'

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Users signed up to Amazon’s 'crowdworking' marketplace Mechanical Turk say they're tired of being marketed as algorithms for cheap labor and have started a letter writing campaign asking Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to recognize them as "actual human beings [...] who deserve respect, fair treatment and open communication."

The original Mechanical Turk was an 18th century chess automaton that trounced the likes of Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin before being revealed (much later) as a fake: it was hollow, with space inside for human grandmaster to sit and control the levers. Now some of Amazon's digital workforce are asking for a similar deception to be lifted.

Wages average between $2 to $3 an hour for Turkers

Amazon advertises its service as "artificial artificial intelligence" for carrying out HITs or Human Intelligence Tasks: rote, context-heavy jobs like captioning photos or transcribing speech that computers still find challenging. Wages on the site reportedly average between $2 and $3 an hour (though concrete figures are hard to come by: employees point out that it depends on hours worked and how smart individuals are at choosing jobs) with Amazon taking a 10 percent cut.

The service has a workforce of more than half-a-million ‘Turkers’ spread across 190 countries and some individuals say they’re being unfairly represented as unskilled laborers, complaining that clients tell them they should be "thankful" for getting "anything near to minimum wage."

"I am a Turker: middle age, entrepreneur, university student, mom, wife, reliant on my mTurk income to keep my family safe from foreclosure," writes 35-year-old Turker Kristy Milland, a community manager for TurkerNation.com who started the letter-writing campaign. "I don’t Turk for $1.45 per hour nor do I live in a developing country, I am a skilled and intelligent worker, and I Turk as my main source of income and it is currently my chosen career."

"Please stop selling us as nothing more than an algorithm"

Milland goes on to suggest that Bezo should market Turkers as "highly skilled laborers who offer an efficient way to get work done [...] Please stop selling us as nothing more than an algorithm and instead introduce those who use your service to the fact we are living, breathing beings who are using this money not to buy beer, but to feed, clothe and shelter our families."

Clay Hamilton, a Turker involved in the campaign, told The Verge that although he only uses Mechanical Turk to supplement his income, he still felt that Amazon's lack of support left workers vulnerable to exploitation and scams. He cites one example of being given fake completion codes used to verify work. "Because Amazon refuses to get involved in worker / request disputes there was nothing I could do other than email the requester, which I did, only to have every message I sent him ignored," said Hamilton.

Hamilton, Milland and their  fellow Turkers are relying on Bezos’ notoriously accessible email address to get attention. As detailed in Brad Stone’s book The Everything Store, Bezos regularly reads complaints from customers, often forwarding them on to employees with a single, ominous question mark. (The same book also described Bezos’ habit of treating workers as "expendable resources without taking into account their contributions.")

However, the letters addressed to Bezos on the campaign’s website (set up by academics as part of research into "collective online action") are far from uniformly damning. One from a 26-year-old Californian college graduate named Orland thanks the Amazon boss "from the bottom of [his] heart" for letting him use the service to quit his weekend job and spend more time with his daughter.

"Since beginning to work on mechanical Turk I've only made 500 dollars, but to me sir that means a lot," writes Orlando. "It means paying for 3 weeks of daycare, it means groceries for the month, it means car and health insurance premiums, it means piano lessons, and most importantly it means not missing one moment of my daughter discovering something new about this world."

This is far from a complaint, but it certainly shows that Amazon's "artificial artificial intelligence" is as human as they come.