Will crowd-sourcing change how we create ads?

I was reading an article by Jim Giles about crowd-sourcing.  Crowd-sourcing is one of those buzzy new technology trends that I generally try to avoid writing about.  It’s not that I am against it or anything, it’s just that a lot of people have already written really good articles / blogs / books about it.

But in reading his article, I realized that I had missed something about crowd-sourcing – that it’s quite possible that humans are being managed by machines.  Now, this isn’t “Soylent Green is made of PEOPLE!” level of surprise, and maybe you already knew this, but I didn’t.

According to Giles, Boris Smus, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, used software to post a request to Mechanical Turk, an outsourcing Website run by Amazon.  The same software also posted editing and writing jobs.  As the results came in, it farmed the text back out for further checking and editing.  The result was an encyclopedia entry on New York City, produced by humans but managed by machine.

This idea – a human assembly line overseen by a silicon supervisor – may change the way we work.  Farming out minor tasks such as image-labelling to the crowd is now commonplace, and it looks like far more complex operations are on the way.  For example, over the past few years a handful of companies have built their business by providing translation and transcription services that use crowd labor.  Blog posts and press releases could soon be created in the same way.

“We’re looking for a way of structuring work so it can be done by the crowd,” says computer scientists Aniket Kittur, who leads the research team at Carnegie Mellon.  “There are whole domains we haven’t even tapped.”

CastingWords, based in Seattle, uses software to manage a trained online workforce tasked with transcribing audio interviews and podcasts.  The software splits the audio into 5-minute chunks and distributes each to a worker.  Completed transcriptions are automatically routed to other workers for quality checks.  the software then compiles the results and gives the transcription to one person for a final check before it is returned to the customer, all without the intervention of a human manager.

CloudCrowd, a San Francisco-based company, is planning on using the same model to for writing press releases and blog posts later this year.  Researchers are interested in trying to design graphics and write advertising copy in this way, but it’s still not clear which complex tasks can be broken down into ones that can be performed by an unskilled labor force.

Ignoring the argument that advertising isn’t performed by a highly-skilled labor force anyway, I can’t help but wonder if too many cooks spoil the pot?  In a way, our work is crowd sourced by us – it’s not just one person building an ad – we do it as a group.  Oftentimes we will ask friends and family their opinion on things – so we expand the circle that way.  How many people do I have to show before I’ve got a representative sample?  Actually, I could do the math and come up with a number – I think it’s about 400.  The thing is, even if I got 400 people to buy in on something, that doesn’t mean it’s going to work.

Giles identifies this as well by writing that Jeffrey Nickerson of the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken is trying to break down complex tasks of a different kind.  He asked Mechanical Turk workers to come up with designs for a children’s chair.  Other workers rated the drawings, and those most highly rated went into a second round in which workers attempted to combine the best elements from pairs of the drawings.  Nickerson repeated this process of rating a recombination, which he calls a “human genetic algorithm,” twice more.  The results from Nickerson’s experiment are not good enough to be made into chairs, says John Nastasi, an architect at Stevens who worked with Nickerson on the project.  But some of the designs, like a “whimsical” chair with feet that the approach has potential, he says.

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