After many years of blogging, and consistent with my desire to move toward retirement, we have ended the Insights blog. Thanks to Doug Bedell for his years of blog support.

People at Work on Challenging Tasks, For Free

Posted on December 30, 2011
Filed Under Business, Communication, Technology | Leave a Comment

How many people does it take to get a job done smartly and efficiently? Well, that depends on the job, the method applied to doing it and what’s available as an affordable level of pay or other compensation.

But suppose you have a truly massive job, like digitalizing all the world’s books. And your computers can’t recognize all the words on older, faded pages? There’s not enough affordable people power available for doing an epic piecework job like that, are there?

Well, yes, if you’re creative enough to envision them. Luis von Ahn, of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, recently described to a TED audience how a CM team enhanced a Captcha form (they developed Captcha to authenticate human presence on the web) to a ReCaptcha version with two words to indentify, one of which stumped a computer in the digitizing process. In the 10 seconds that takes, 100 million people-a-day using ReCaptcha are helping to digitalize 2.5 million books a year. That brought a well-deserved burst of applause from the TED audience.

But suppose you went on to envision translating the entire web into the world’s major languages. Yes, von Ahn and his colleagues are doing that, too, via a free website they’ve posted, Like ReCaptcha, duolingo is actually an example of the enormous mediating influence made possible by technology. And that can be both good and challenging.

Why challenging? Well, a great many people want to learn another language, von Ahn notes, but many of them around the world can’t afford language lessons. So provide them, in progressively more challenging steps, with actual material to translate, like web pages, and with enough participants, you’re translating the web!

This is a business model, von Ahn notes, that “doesn’t discriminate against poor people.” Great, but does it discriminate against language schools and teachers for those better-off? Probably so, we note.

On balance, CM’s technology-based methodology trumps human agency, given the scale and alternative costs of the challenge at hand. But the need for paid people is diminished in this, and likely many other, technology-abetted instances.

This is a reality, it strikes us, that the new, technology-abetted, web-centric economy is posing and one that we don’t fully understand how to cope with. There are likely to be relatively fewer jobs for a growing population. – Doug Bedell


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