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Are Google's glory days behind it?

Colly Myers on the rise of AQA

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Now we were extremely skeptical that AQA didn't drink from the Wikipedia well. But in a couple of tests, pitting it against rival 82Ask, AQA drew from more original source material, while 82Ask hit the Wikipedia. It was still web-based, but made for a better answer. AQA was much faster, too.

AQA's success arrives at a time when there's a lot of utopian talk about how new production "models" may be being enabled by technology networks - often using home-based workers offering their services for free. AQA also taps into a global, networked workers - but pays them.

Much of this is misplaced, and quite fanciful, the result of academics who've arrived at a "model" simply casting around for evidence that looks like it might fit their favourite shape, such as Yochai Benkler. When academics fasten onto a favourite shape, no amount of reason can persuade them otherwise.

But there's also a darker side. Amidst a lot of hooey about "collective intelligence", there's the thought that we're enabling virtual sweatshops. Amazon.com's Mechanical Turk is one example of this kind of business - bringing together employers who have piece work, often mundane and repetitive, with people prepared to do it. It's been called a virtual sweatshop.

Colly Myers rejects the idea that AQA may be depressing wages.

"What we do at AQA is bringing people into the workforce - and in many cases they wouldn't be otherwise working. Students can work, but two thirds of our researchers can't - they're at home. We can do this because we have a business perspective, we have revenue.

"So the technology allows us to do so very efficiently. We're much more efficient than a call centre or a support centre. And they're a lot happier because they work from home and can choose when they work - there's unimaginable freedom," he says.

He agrees there is at least one similarity between Mechanical Turk and AQA in that they both use humans to do tasks that are too difficult to be done by computers, both have a task that can be dispatched and completed over a network, both pay for the service, and neither schedules any resources.

But Mechanical Turk is a generic clearing house, which leads to its major flaw - lack of quality control.

"The very nature of this genericity leads to its key weakness in that it does not have adequate mechanisms to qualify its human resources to any specific task. It does try to define various types of qualifications but they are necessarily weak and fail the test as a true qualification for most non-trivia tasks," he says.

"As a consqeuence, the quailty of their work against any task cannot be very high, and consequently a user of the Mechanial Turk system cannot afford to pay a great deal for the service.

In other words, Amazon can't do the tests that AQA performs to qualify researchers, or the reviews the senior researchers do of their answers. And there's no management structure to monitor and train people.

"Continuous improvement is vital since without continuous improvement any business is a dead duck over time," says Myers. "I think that it is something close to a universal truth to say 'that you get what you pay for' in the cost vs quality debate."

He rejects the idea that Mechanical Turk participants are in a "sweatshop", because they can leave at any time.

Finally, the former Psion MD and Symbian first CEO remains as committed to data integrity as he always has been - he keeps paper copies of his contacts book under his bed he says, although he may have been being metaphorical.

We mentioned David Rosenthal's description of engineers who share these values as essentially pessimistic in their approach. They need to factor in whether the bridge will fall down.

"Someone asked me what I was at a family gathering, recently. I said I'm a pessimist. They replied, no you're not, you're a cautious optimist."

Psion, the company that invented the PDA, had a thing about never losing your data. That's more than you can say for us. After an hour of recording our conversation for posterity on a Nokia, the phone simply looped round and deleted the recording. It wasn't a Symbian Nokia. ®

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