How Many Full-Time Mechanical Turks Work for Amazon?

Can you live at two cents a microjob?

Wikimedia/Karl Gottlieb von Windisch

Amazon’s Mechanical Turk system — the “artificial artificial intelligence” business solution that slots a human in place of a computer — is notoriously opaque in its operations. Though people hunting for rote tasks have turned to Mechanical Turk for projects ranging from collecting hand-drawn pictures of sheep looking left to brainstorming porn names, no one outside (and maybe inside) the comfortable confines of Bezos-land knows just how many people make a living as Turkers, as they’re called in MTurk parlance.

When asked, Amazon declined to play ball: “Mechanical Turk doesn’t collect any demographic data from the Workers other than the country they live in,” an Amazon representative told Inverse. “Since we don’t collect this kind of information, we don’t have any statistical data to provide of how many Workers make their living off of Mechanical Turk.”

Refused — however politely — at the source, we must turn to other, rougher approximations. New York University business professor Panos Ipeirotis attempted to calculate how big Mechanical Turk was starting in 2012. By analyzing the Turk market for four years, Ipeirotis managed only to estimated that each year $10 million to $150 million passes through the system, with Amazon taking a 10 percent cut. That range is indicative of just how confounding the system is.

Kicking off a thread that would last for four years — and was updated as recently as August 2015 — on TurkNation, one of the most storied Mechanical Turk forums, turker “jawbreaker” wondered: “Does anyone make a living doing this?” It’s possible, the responses came, though the group reached consensus on the idea that $20,000 was the earnings ceiling. If that’s true — and Ipeirotis’ data are accurate — there are no more than 7,500 full-time turks at the high end. In reality the number is likely lower and they’re likely working way harder.

Geographical diversity makes it hard to work backward from the money. Some turkers make very little and may well be fine with that. Given average earnings of $20 to $300 per year, the best estimate is that there are 500,000 part-time turkers across the globe. A living minimum wage, then, is an outlier. The average per-hour compensation for a U.S. Mechanical Turk worker was estimated in 2009 to be $2.30. To get to the $8 an hour mark, one turker had to first complete 110,000 tasks to qualify as Turk Master.

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