Wednesday, April 8, 2009

LiveOps and Human Computation

When we talk about human computation, the canonical examples are either the Games with a Purpose from Luis von Ahn, or Amazon's Mechanical Turk.

Recently, though I learned about LiveOps, a company that allows "micro-outsourcing" of small tasks, such as handling a telephone call, or taking a pizza order in a drivethrough. Quoting Jonathan Zittrain who wrote a paper Ubiquitous Human Computing:
We are in the initial stages of distributed human computing that can be directed at mental tasks the way that surplus remote server rackspace or Web hosting can be purchased to accommodate sudden spikes in Internet traffic (von Ahn 2005; Hewlett Packard (HP) 2008) or PCs can be arranged in grid computing configurations, each executing code in an identical virtual environment (International Business Machines (IBM) 2006). At some fast food drivethroughs, the microphone and speaker next to the marquee menu are patched through to an order-taker thousands of miles away. That person types up the requested order and dispatches it back to a screen in the food preparation area of the restaurant while the car is idling (Richtel 2006). Services like LiveOps recruit workers for such mental contracting tasks (LiveOps 2008a). Applicants to LiveOps navigate a fully automated hours-long vetting system that tests their skills and suitability. Out of 2,000 applicants per week, roughly 40 emerge for a second round of interviews by LiveOps managers (LiveOps 2008b). 
Those who succeed and become contractors for firms like LiveOps encounter an unusual combination of freedom and control. They can work whenever they like, wherever they like, for as much or as little time as they like. When they log in to work they choose from a menu of assignments tailored to their skill and reputation levels. These might include taking pizza orders, placing sales calls, lobbying for a political candidate, or handling customer service inquiries. Then there is the control: every call and transaction is measured and recorded. Interactions can be monitored live by fellow LiveOps mentors or official LiveOps managers, or pulled up later as part of a larger assessment of contractors’ work. Judgments are developed and recorded about contractors’ performance, such that an incoming pizza order can be routed to the best pizzaorder- taker – who may not be the same as the best political campaigner (Hornik 2007). Contractors can be de-accredited at any time.
I find the similarities with Mechanical Turk striking but I can clearly see how LiveOps differentiates itself by handling tasks that are not suitable for the Mechanical Turk platform. I also find it mildly entertaining that I am using LiveOps as an example in class when we talk about VoIP, but I never thought of actually digging deeper to see how they work.

On a tangentially related note, if you want to find papers related to human computation, you can visit a wiki that we created at Feel free to add more papers, add notes to the current papers, or simply send suggestions on how to improve it. In the Human Computation Workshop (HComp 2009) we are trying to bring together people who are interested in all aspects of human computation, and the wiki is just one part of this effort.