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Another job being automated at a surprising pace: the boss

Posting in Design

The other day, we posted a list of 10 jobs being automated at a surprising pace. We would be remiss if we did not include a job that is quickly being taken over by machines: the boss.

We're quickly advancing to the point in which microtasks are being managed and parceled out over networks. In a post at New Scientist, Douglas Heaven provides details on an algorithm designed by researchers at the University of Massachusetts: "AutoMan." He calls AutoMan "the first fully automatic system that can delegate tasks to human workers via crowdsourcing platforms such as Amazon's Mechanical Turk."

Indeed, the next big thing after crowdsourcing may be "crowd labor," in which tasks are delivered and return piecemeal, over the Internet, from workers all over the globe. Amazon Mechanical Turk is the leading example in use today, but new, compiled services such as photo-moderation and sentiment-analysis are also emerging.

In a paper describing the attributes of AutoMan, the UMass researchers describe the shortcomings of current crowd labor platforms:

"Crowdsourcing platforms like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk make it possible to harness human-based computational power on an unprecedented scale. However, their utility as a general-purpose computational platform remains limited. The lack of complete automation makes it difficult to orchestrate complex or interrelated tasks. Scheduling human workers to reduce latency costs real money, and jobs must be monitored and rescheduled when workers fail to complete their tasks. Furthermore, it is often difficult to predict the length of time and payment that should be budgeted for a given task. Finally, the results of human-based computations are not necessarily reliable, both because human skills and accuracy vary widely, and because workers have a financial incentive to minimize their effort."

For its part, AutoMan is designed to "send out jobs, manage workers, accept or reject work and make payments," one of its creators, Daniel Barowy of the University of Massachusetts, told New Scientist. "You're replacing people's bosses with a computer."  And unlike existing crowdsourcing platforms, "AutoMan doesn't attempt to predict the reliability of its workers based on their previous performance," the report adds. "Instead, if it is not sure it has the correct answer, it keeps on posting the same job, upping the fee each time, until it is confident that it does."

There are already instances of crowd labor being deployed over the Internet to spread tasks across the globe. The big question is: will enterprises bite as well?  Will crowd labor evolve into a way to get internal corporate work done?

Of course, that will start giving a whole new meaning to office politics. Can you laugh just as nervously at a computer's jokes as you would your human boss's attempts at humor?

— By on December 8, 2012, 12:24 AM PST

Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure