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Jonathan Zittrain: “Minds for Sale”

January 2nd, 2010 by

In this video Jonathan Zittrain, Professor of Law at Harvard, best known for his book The Future of the Internet – And How to Stop It, gives a speech about crowdsourcing and cloud labor at the Berkman West reception. He first introduces some of the better-known human computing projects and companies, e.g., Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, LiveOps, The ESP Game, and Innocentive, and then dives into the complex ethical and legal issues the industry needs to face in the near future.


For Devoted Fans, a Click is as Good as a Clap

December 22nd, 2009 by

Why join the navy if you can be a pirate? by Rétrofuturs (Hulk4598) / Stéphane Massa-Bidal (b on Flickr

Once upon a time, enjoyment of art and the support of the artists who created it were inextricably linked. The hard rock fans amongst us would spend an evening punching the air with their fist, as an exponent of hair metal pumped out tunes at the local sports-arena-turned-music-venue. Those into the visual arts could don a beige turtle neck jumper, make their way to the local art gallery, and spend time appreciating a rendition of some dogs playing poker. Whether one tuned into the radio, rented a movie or bought a print, if you wanted to enjoy an artist’s work you had to support them in some way.

In the digital age, where high speed internet floods homes all over the world with virtually unlimited media, the opportunity to enjoy art is no longer necessarily linked to supporting its creator. Fans not bothered by intellectual property laws can now enjoy an artist’s work without even being aware who the artist is, let alone supporting them in any way.

This does not mean the new world is a horrible place for creative types. A painter from Timbuktu can now offer her work to a global audience. This huge, varied demand gives artists the opportunity to target niche audiences in a way not possible with traditional distribution methods.

The Pirate’s Booty
For the artists, it’s easy to focus on the downside, however – especially for those whose work is easily distributed over the internet. For many of them, the new world is full of people who like to take their work without paying for it.

Now, we all know the arts are a noble pursuit. It is often said that it is one of the things that separates us from the animals (even those that can play poker). But although artists are seldom motivated just by money, they still need to eat, drink and smoke enormous quantities of cigarettes.

Until recently, the financial opportunities to support an artist were pretty much limited to actions initiated by them. This made sense in a world where fans could only enjoy the artist’s work if they bought a print, visited a gallery or went to the movies. This old paradigm made it difficult for fans to enjoy art without paying for it, but it was not necessarily a perfect scenario for the artists either – if they didn’t release an album, or artwork, or go on tour their work for a while, a vast reservoir of goodwill went untapped.

The Tipping Point
Rather than fight the new system – and risk fan backlash like Metallica suffered – some artists have chosen to embrace the digital era and capture this untapped appreciation. One way they are doing this is by using Micro-donations. It is now common for an artist’s Myspace pages to have a “Tip Jar” that links to payment methods like Paypal. Much like a busker’s open guitar case on the street, this technology allows fans to tip an artist any amount they like be it for providing a free download, or just to show their appreciation for a job well done. Radiohead went as far as to offer their new album In Rainbows for fans to download at any price they saw fit.

Aside from the traditional tip, more specialized sites are now popping up that are specifically designed as a means for managing and nurturing the artist-fan relationship. On these sites, in return for donations, fans can get access to unreleased content, sit in on a recording session, or get a mention in the sleeve notes of a new book.

The Roadies of the Future
Financial assistance can also be given by reducing an artist’s expenses. For example some fans run online competitions to design a new album cover online, or conduct votes to decide the schedule of a tour. The sort of things some artists may not have the money, time or inclination to do themselves, fans are more than happy to take up.

How fans will support their favorite artists in the future is uncertain. It seems that – especially for smaller artists – micro-donations may make a real difference to whether they can support themselves through their art alone.

For music fans, there are now myriad ways to support their favorite artists, and much more art available for them to enjoy (and let’s not forget how the emergence of internet piracy has forced many artists to go on tour again, in order to make up for the decline in royalty payments. It is hard to think of a band that hasn’t had a comeback tour in the last few years – regardless of whether the original members are all still living).

For the artists, technological developments are a mixed blessing, but the underlying formula remains the same. Keep producing the goods, and fans will keep supporting you. It’s just that in the future appreciation may be just as likely to be shown with a click as with a clap.


Work Hard, Play Hard (then Die Hard)

December 21st, 2009 by

Defeat by Katie Weilbacher

Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something.
Last words of Pancho Villa, Mexican revolutionary, 1923.

When you’re lying on your deathbed, your all too brief 103 years of life flashing before your eyes, what do you think will stand out the most? If you’re lucky enough to have anyone still interested in what you have to say by this point, what will be your parting words of wisdom? Along with your great loves and tragic regrets, will you mention the thing that has occupied most of your waking lifetime?

I would say that only a few exceptional people are passionate enough about their work to bring it up at this point. Just before Leonardo da Vinci died he reputedly said “I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have”. Given what he accomplished (remember that he died in 1519, so cannot be held in anyway responsible for either The Da Vinci Code or Angels and Demons movies) his parting words seem a little harsh. But is part of the reason why they seem strange because he even mentioned work at all?

A Bad Day Fishing is Better than a Good Day at Work
It seems for most people, work is an important issue between the hours of 9 and 5, Monday to Friday, but something they would rather forget otherwise. The bumper sticker “A bad day fishing is better than a good day at work” sums it up. Even people who don’t mind their job are unlikely to consider it important enough to waste their last breath on. In the popular consciousness, work is something to dread, rather than look forward to. Slacking off is celebrated as cool and people who work long hours for the job are derided as workaholics by preachers from Hollywood to Holy Week.

Whether or not this is a view shared by people all over the world is hard to say. I wonder if people struggling for decent quality of life in the enormous industrial cities in China, or tribes in remote highlands of Papua New Guinea are passionate about whatever it is they do to put food on the table. Humans are complicated creatures, but it seems logical that the less opportunity people have to work in an area of their choosing, the less likely it is that they are going to enjoy it.

Work Made Fun
But is this dim view of work inevitable, or is it just a passing phase in human evolution? Just as technology liberated mankind from the drudgery of peasant life, it is now creating new and often fun work opportunities.

In China, the idea of work as play has recently been taken to a new level. Throughout the country it is estimated that hundreds of thousands people are now paid to play online games, in what have been coined “Gold Farms”. These “workers” play the games specifically to produce virtual goods and services, which are then sold by their employers to gamers worldwide for real money. These people are actually getting paid to play computer games.

While the use for computer game currency is obviously limited, the development of crowdsourcing (where firms outsource problems to the online community) has enormous potential. Currently Amazon’s Mechanical Turk is the best known crowdsourcing outlet exploring the potential offered by an online world of people.

But “Turking” with Amazon is only one of many options for someone looking to make a quick buck online. The presence of an enormous, relatively cheap workforce on the web has led to some very inventive and sometimes controversial methods of utilizing this facility.

Child’s Play
One company has started offering gaming credits to children in return for completing web based tasks. While this obviously raises some moral issues relating to exploitation of child labor, it is easy to see the upside too. In my day we rode around rainy streets delivering newspapers to people’s doors. Just as many of those people I delivered sodden papers to now read their news online, a smart kid in virtually any country can jump on the net in his or her bedroom and start earning.

While it is early days yet for crowdsourcing, it is easy to get excited about its potential. Not all of us are going to one day play computer games for a living, but maybe this new way of working will eventually provide people all over the world – in rich countries and poor alike – greater opportunities and hopefully satisfaction in how they put food on the table.

Maybe by the time I am 103, society will view “work” in a more positive light. When I offer my final words of wisdom to my grandkids, maybe I will tell them about the activity which has taken up the majority of my life. That’s if they’re not too busy play-working on the computer.


We, Robot: A Vision of What’s to Come

December 18th, 2009 by

Packed in like sardines by Don Solo

When I was growing up and spending too much time watching cartoons, I met George Jetson, and Jane (his wife). When I got to know Rosie, the Jetson’s robot maid (whom they loved and would never replace or upgrade) I became very hopeful for a future free of household chores.

Alas, at the time of writing, I am still without a robotic aide. Although the use of robotics in manufacturing processes and other fields is growing, artificial intelligence has not nearly progressed to the level many science fiction writers predicted. One of the key sticking points is robot vision.

While naturally the details of robot vision technologies are complicated, the bare bolts are roughly analogous to the way we ourselves see – with an eye and a brain. First, you need a camera or sensor to take in images (eye) and a unit to process the information, generally by analyzing every pixel (brain). An added bonus is the ability to act on the information, which is necessary for some tasks, especially in a future when you can’t be bothered making your own coffee.

Anyone who can take 12 megapixel photos with their phone will know that current image-capturing technology is extremely sophisticated. The real trick is in interpreting the image correctly. It is this image-processing part of the equation where we start to see difficulties and the huge gulf between human and robot vision.

Humans – with certain relations of mine excepted – effortlessly filter out non-pertinent information. For example, you needn’t re-analyze every last detail in your visual field (consciously noting the color of the curtains, for example) in order to realize that your wife changed the TV channel while you were in the bathroom. You just notice that the room is pretty much the same but for the absence of Top Gear and the appearance of Project Runway. A robot, on the other hand, may well have to process every last detail in the scene before kicking up a fuss.

Limited vision doesn’t inhibit certain robot applications. Robots are adept at performing certain specialized tasks on a manufacturing production line, or sorting out a jumble of spare parts where the robot has been preprogrammed to recognize all the various shapes. But put one in my idealized scenario where you want it to fetch you a couple of kiwifruit from the fridge, and it might well return with a couple of broken eggs instead.

The wide disparity between natural and artificial vision is no real surprise of course. Human eyesight has the benefit of millions of years of natural selection’s tiny, incremental improvements. Robot or computer vision has only a couple of lousy decades on the board which, even with a multitude of talented researchers on the case, is hardly enough time to catch up.

But catching up it is. Researchers are constantly developing algorithms to enable robots to better filter out relevant information from their images. A clever way of addressing this problem has recently been crafted by harnessing the power of crowdsourcing. Through tools such as the Mechanical Turk, people all over the world are in a position to help the scientists with the rather massive task of sifting through and sorting raw image data. People can assist researchers for instance by labeling objects, or drawing around the outlines of pertinent information.

This kind of crowd assistance can help researchers to develop software that allows computers/robots to process visual information more quickly and efficiently. The spoilt among us, who resentfully feel that science fiction has created expectations that reality has been slow to deliver upon, may just want to sign up to Mechanical Turk and get the ball rolling a little quicker.


We’re Hiring: Senior Software Test Engineer Needed!

December 17th, 2009 by

Buggy drivers by Esthr on Flickr

Microtask is a dynamic, entrepreneur-driven company, focused on developing a solution for the global distribution of digital labor. We are going to change the way people work, all over the world! To help us find this solution, we are looking for an experienced Senior Software Test Engineer to join our product development team.

As the successful applicant, you will be responsible for the high-level testing of our platform and customer pilot projects. You will be working with a highly qualified and committed team of senior engineers to design and implement the software solution.

In addition to working with the most disruptive technology in the world, your job will include:

  • Test planning
  • Design of API tests, QA for API docs
  • Managing of the test environment
  • Designing and execution of user interface tests with user experience measurement
  • End-to-end testing
  • Building a testing team
  • Managing outsourced testing

The person we’re looking is a goal driven, articulate and enthusiastic test engineer with strong interpersonal skills, an attention to detail and a positive attitude. The ideal applicant will also have:

  • At least five years of relevant experience in testing
  • A good understanding of agile methods and scrum
  • Hands on experience in working with large scale development projects
  • Experience with scripting (Ruby, Python, Perl, etc)
  • Fluent English and Finnish
  • An understanding of Java and web technologies (Flash/Flex is a plus)
  • Some coding experience

Our development office is based in Tampere and business headquarters are located in Helsinki. This is a full-time position in Tampere starting in February 2010.

If you are interested in this rare opportunity and committed to making a difference, please send your CV and job application to jobs@microtask.fi.


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