Monday, May 24, 2010

Harvard Admitted Students Weekend Review, Part 3

As I mentioned during the second part of my review of the Harvard Law School Admitted Students Weekend, Professor Jonathan Zittrain of the Berkman Center was more interested in the area of the crowdsourcing pyramid above free.

While Google has successfully circumvented the need to develop image-recognition software for its search algorithms, Amazon is working on a wider array of humanized artificial intelligence.  Cleverly pulling on the facsimile of "intelligence in a box" first attempted by The Turk, Amazon rebranded the idea as a scalable, online, and hidden workforce.

Crowdsourcing, keeping the crowd but without the source, as it were.

 While JZ went through a few examples, we didn't actually go through the process of completing any posted "jobs" during the presentation.  I took the initiative to follow through with my own exploration, and a quick glance through the available HITs--Human Intelligence Tasks--revealed an interesting one almost immediately.

Someone would pay me $0.15 a pop for the contact information, phone number and e-mail address of a local sheriff.  Considering there are "about 3,500" sheriffs offices in the United States, it could be assumed that this person--or corporation--was willing to pay a little more than $500 for a complete sheriff directory.  Why would that information be worth $500 to anyone?

Political activists hoping to create a grassroots reform of the criminal justice system?  A sociology professor with a sizeable budget for research?  Or something more sinister?

With 5 minutes of my time to spend, I picked a random sheriff: Keith A. Everhart, Sheriff for Hardin County in Ohio.  This took about 15 seconds, thanks to Google.  With the remaining time, I found his approximate income, house value, family members, political party affiliation, the last IP address where he logged into his e-mail, the physical location of the server that housed his e-mail messages, and... you get the idea.

Increasing the potential abuse, that fact-finding process can be automated from an Excel spreadsheet or e-mail contact list.  Why would such information for every sheriff in the United States be worth $500 to anyone?

For those of you who still haven't seen the potential extreme situations here--which, as you'll see later on--are actually already happening, here's a quote from the Colorado Daily... in 2006.

Were you on Farrand Field at 4:20 p.m. on Thursday, April 20? 
If so, chances are your photo may be online.
150 photos of people who were on Farrand Field during the annual "4/20” marijuana-smoking event were posted online last week by the University of Colorado Police Department.
CUPD is offering a $50 reward for each person identified, and identified people are subject to possible “criminal charges,” said spokesman Lt. Tim McGraw. Identified people may also receive a ticket and $100 fine and may need to appear before CU's Judicial Affairs Office.
There you go.  Mechanical Turk at its best, where the investor--the criminal justice system--recoups any payout to its human intelligence--read, bounty hunters--by fining the positive hits.  And all in the service of keeping campuses safe from illicit drugs!

But what about "HITs" that have higher, more controversial stakes? And you don't know who the HITs are being ordered by? And can be performed by just about anyone, including your little brother, niece, anyone with two eyes and a human brain?  JZ spent a lot of time focusing on children during his presentation in order to build the affective repulsion for the later HITs, but I don't even find that element of crowdsourcing that disturbing.

The problem is that with these tasks, the purpose of the task is completely disconnected from the task itself.  Here, play this game:

  1. Look carefully at the two pictures below.  You have a partner somewhere in the world looking at the same two pictures, right now with you!
  2. Can you find someone who is in both pictures?  If you and your partner agree--and end up being right--you can earn $0.25!
  3. Keep playing to find as many matches as you can!

I can see the advertising commercial for Amazon Turk right now:

Uploading all Iranian ID photos to state-controlled server: Salary of a few civil servants
Capturing all photos of Iranian protesters on Internet--including Twitter: $0.01 a picture
Matching photo IDs with protester pictures: $0.10 a picture
Catching demonstrators during civil unrest: Priceless

Think that JZ is offbase?

I looked, and not for very long, and it's already happened. But for the protesters, and to catch the killer of Neda Agha-Soltan.  Complete with photo-id, and directions:


I personally still find it chilling on how quickly JZ was able to take me from, "Aw, cute polar bears," to fascist crackdown facilitated by your children.  For once, such scintillating accusations are not some right-wing plot to scare us into submission; it's the Future of the Internet: Unless We Stop It.

Can't wait to be at Harvard and take classes from this guy.  You can watch his--LONG--complete talk below.