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Amazon patents Citizens' Sweatshop

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Amazon.com has been awarded a patent for a "Hybrid machine/human computing arrangement". It describes the model behind its Mechanical Turk, which is a kind of eBay for distributed piece work.

The company acts as a broker, finding home workers to perform tasks that computers aren't well suited to do, such as speech or image recognition, and connecting them with "employers". Amazon.com takes a cut from the transaction.

The patent, USPTO #7,197,459, describes several implementations of this basic idea.

With an untapped pool of home labour now equipped with computers and internet connections, this was an idea waiting to be tried.

But what gives the idea a spooky quality is how the patent reverses our traditional relationship with tools. See where the wetware is described in this Citizens' Sweatshop:

"A hybrid machine/human computing arrangement including a central coordinating server and a number of human operated nodes, is provided to involve humans to assist a computer system to solve particular tasks, allowing the computer system to solve the tasks more efficiently." [our emphasis]

In his book Wealth of Nations, technology evangelist Yochim 'Bentham' Benkler hails this as a liberating development. But then the utilitarians who helped create the Victorian workhouse argued that the institutions were a "nurturing" experience, too. But many more propagandists, with far more persuasive powers than Benkler, will be necessary to humanise this particular wheeze.

And it goes both ways. The unworthy thought strikes us that technology evangelism in academia is so predictable and repetitive these days, it should have been devolved to Perl scripts long ago. Suggestions to the usual.

(Thanks to Amazon-watcher TheoDP for the alert).®

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