Scott Andrews / AP
In this file photo, crowds gather for the inauguration of President Barack Obama Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009. New computer software is able to tap into the wisdom of crowds to get tasks done.
Computers may eventually outsmart human intelligence, but for now they're just finally getting smart enough to ask humans for help.
That's the basic idea behind MobileWorks, a startup that is weaving crowdsourcing capability into computer software. Crowdsourcing is the concept of putting out a question to your social network to help solve a problem.
In MobileWorks case, software sends tasks to a hand-picked crowd — mostly workers recruited from the developing world such as the slums of India and Pakistan. Many work with a mobile phone. The company says these workers are getting high-tech experience and a "fair wage."
"Much of the criticism that has been leveled at online digital work is that it becomes kind of sweatshop labor," Anand Kulkarni, a cofounder and CEO of MobileWorks, told me today. "Our goal was to start with a livable wage and work forward to construct an effective crowdsourcing system."
And what's that wage? Workers in India on a mobile phone earn about U.S. $0.50 per hour; those with a laptop computer make $1.50.
"These are workers who are earning about $2 per day before joining our systems, so, in a way, what we are paying is enough to make a strong positive impact on their lives," Kulkarni said.
Tasks these workers accomplish include transcribing audio recordings, digitizing handwritten notes and scouring the Internet for contact information of potential job recruits. Many take just a minute or two to complete, which is part of the plan.
The cost to the user of the system is on the order of pennies per task.
To maintain client confidentiality, each task is broken up into tiny bits and distributed to the workforce. When the bits of work are completed, the software stitches them back together and delivers the completed task to the user.
The concept is similar to Amazon Mechanical Turk, where tasks are solved by a crowd of anonymous workers, though MobileWorks says their hand-picked crowd is faster and more accurate.
And since the workers are handpicked, MobileWorks can rouse them with a quick text message, making sure workers are at the ready when there is work to be done.
"The ability to spin up workers when you need them is very powerful," Michael Bernstein, who researchers crowdsourcing at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory who has developed an application to tap into the Mechanical Turk service, told Technology Review.
"On Mechanical Turk your tasks can just stall because not enough people chose to work on them."
More stories on crowdsourcing work:
- Facebook asks users to translate for free
- Charities start to harness the power of the many
- Cash in: 12 ways to earn
- Amazon pushes user-driven research service
John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com.