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When workers turn into 'turkers'

Amazon.com's 'Mechanical Turk' Web service pays people to perform simple tasks computers cannot do.

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Some day, your boss could be a faceless Mechanical Turk who doles out tasks over the Internet. For nearly a year, Amazon.com's Mechanical Turk (mturk.com) has paid amounts ranging from one cent to several dollars for tasks that take a few seconds to a few minutes to complete. The jobs include taking surveys, contributing to a restaurant guide, transcribing audio clips, and looking at photos on the Web to identify colors, street addresses, or human faces.

Curtis Taylor has made about $1,400 since last December just "fooling around with" Mechanical Turk while he watched TV at night. The technical instructor, who lives near Louisville, Ky., used the extra income to buy a new computer and wireless headsets for his and his wife's cellphones.

Chuck Freiman, a paralegal in Charlotte, N.C., spends two or three hours a week on the Turk. To him it's a hobby, not a job. "It's not like I have to get dressed up and go to work or anything," says Mr. Freiman, who brought in about $25 last month. As long as he can make a little money, he says, "I'll be doing it."

The Mechanical Turk has given a 21st-century twist to the centuries-old concepts of "cottage industry" and "piece work." People work in their homes and are paid based on how much they produce instead of an hourly wage, using the Internet connections that have become a standard feature in most homes.

While some worry that the Turk could become another work-at-home scheme with low pay and no benefits that exploits workers, others suggest that if the concept took off, it could allow anyone – a college student, a shut-in, the newly unemployed – to quickly earn an income. The Turk could be the employer of last resort.

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