The Quest to Recreate the Olympics with Mechanical Turk

Click here to get this post in PDF

Shamik Ghosh had been picking up tasks on Amazon Mechanical Turk for several months when he logged on in winter 2010 and saw a perplexing request: Someone wanted him to act out a series of Winter Olympic sports—snowboarding, ice hockey, figure skating, etc.—and they were offering to pay him $3.50 for every video that he uploaded to YouTube. Given that conceptualizing, filming, and uploading a video would take 10 minutes at most, that came out to an hourly wage of about $21—an immense sum for the microtask platform, where the average wage as of 2017 was $2/hour. And unlike most tasks on Mechanical Turk, this one actually seemed … fun.

Launched in 2005, Amazon's Mechanical Turk is a marketplace for odd jobs that require a human brain. The system is relatively simple: Individuals, educational institutions, or companies start by posting a batch of Human Intelligence Tasks, known as HITs, for gigs like cleaning data, categorizing images, or answering surveys. Those jobs then get picked up by an army of workers, known as “Turkers,” who earn a small amount of money for each HIT they complete—every photo tagged, every survey question answered, and so on.

Like many Turkers, Ghosh was using the service to supplement his income. He worked as an assistant high school teacher in Chakdaha, India and Mechanical Turk allowed him to make some extra cash. So when the Olympics-themed task popped up, with its formidable wage and amusing premise, he leapt at it, posting nine videos spanning aerial freestyle skiing, curling, and figure skating. His home region wasn’t known for getting snow—temperatures in Chakdaha hover around 80 degrees Fahrenheit in January—but Ghosh got creative. For ice hockey, he carefully rolled a green ball into a light blue wastepaper basket that he’d tipped on its side in his living room. For curling, he taped a fork to a doll’s hand and used it to slowly move a small black disc around a plate. For freestyle aerials, Ghosh stood on a rug with his knees bent, pushing furiously with two white plastic sticks, and then fell to his back, kicking both legs in the air in an interpretation of ski jumping. At the end of it all, he earned just over $30. It was his first trip to the so-called “Mechanical Olympics”—but it wasn’t his last.

The Inaugural Mechanical Olympics

The Mechanical Olympics are a project spearheaded by Xtine Burrough, an artist and associate professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. Burrough discovered Amazon Mechanical Turk in 2008, just a few years after the platform’s launch, and was instantly fascinated: She signed up as Turker to explore the interface, and made on average 87 cents an hour. “I’m a very fast typer, and I’m somewhat digitally savvy, so that was pretty eye opening,” Burrough reflects. She was captivated by the idea of creating a work of art that would subvert the platform, which had at that point already begun receiving criticism for being a virtual sweatshop. It might be nice, she thought, to offer a well-paying task that encouraged Turkers to get out of their chairs and move. The Beijing Summer Olympics were coming up, and Burrough decided to use Mechanical Turk to facilitate an alternative virtual Olympics.

She gave herself a budget of $200 and posted batches of HITs on Mechanical Turk a week before the Olympics started, calling for interpretations of specific Olympic events: Men’s diving, women’s gymnastics vault, and so on. Workers could interpret those prompts however they wished—they could find a pool and literally dive in, or they could mime diving from the top of a staircase—but either way, they’d videotape themselves and post it to YouTube, at which point they’d receive a modest payment. Burrough wasn’t sure anyone would actually do the HITs; she worried people might think it was a gag, or that it was weird. But when she woke up the morning after posting the HITs, to her surprise, there were dozens of videos waiting for her.

What functions as an art project for Mechanical Olympics creator Xtine Burrough is just another day’s work for the Turkers who participate—but they welcome anything that breaks up long days classifying data or transcribing text from images.

“I was like a child on Christmas morning,” she recalls. “It was magical, which is really what they’re selling on this platform—your work magically gets done for you—but I just couldn't believe there were people who would participate in this way.” Each day of the 2008 Olympics, Burrough posted three related videos—i.e., three interpretations of men’s archery—to a blog, where people could vote for their favorites. Each day’s winner received a 50 cent bonus.

The 2008 event was such a success that Burrough kept it up: Every two years, like clockwork, she posts a batch of Olympics-themed HITs to Mechanical Turk and curates participants’ videos on YouTube. She stopped embedding the videos on a separate blog once YouTube added a “like” function, which doubles as a voting metric for the games; she’s also adjusted the pay as the years have gone on to keep pace with inflation, and this year is paying workers $5 per HIT.

What functions as an art project for Burrough is just another day’s work for the Turkers who participate—but they welcome anything that breaks up long days classifying data or transcribing text from images. “It was something different, something cool that could be done easily,” recalls Venkatesh Tahiliani. He participated in the 2012 Mechanical Olympics, when he was 18. At the time he was often playing soccer with his friends, and when Burrough posted a HIT seeking soccer footage, he decided to simply film a pickup game and submit it. “It was marginally more idea-centered than other tasks I saw, and it paid more,” says Tahiliani, who is now pursuing a master’s degree in computer science at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Ghosh, meanwhile, uses the Mechanical Olympics as an opportunity for family bonding, as well as earning some extra cash: His wife features regularly in his videos, and his son often asks whether there are any video-related HITs he can help his father with.

This Year's Games

During this year’s Olympic cycle, in addition to posting HITs for interpretations of the winter competitions in Pyeongchang, Burrough asked some workers to send her videos reflecting on their participation in the project. The responses she’s received so far all touch upon the same theme: Workers say they’re grateful to be paid to move around and be away from their screens, even if only for a short while. “Participating in the Olympics gives me something to do, you know, something active, something where I can use my imagination and just have fun with it,” says one worker with the YouTube handle Marty Mcfly. “That’s something you don’t see too often on Mechanical Turk.”

During the first run of the Mechanical Olympics in 2008, Burrough didn’t necessarily see the project as a commentary on Amazon Mechanical Turk. But as the games have grown, she says, she’s come to see them as a way to bring attention to a traditionally invisible workforce. “I’m trying to intervene in a system that perpetuates a really steadfast routine—‘do these HITs as fast as you can and try to make more than 80 cents’—to offer an alternative,” she says. “It’s [called] ‘Mechanical’ Turk, and it feels mechanical. There’s a void there. So I’m trying to breathe some kind of human spirit into this mechanical void and celebrate the human body that [is] the workers. The workers are real people.”

More Olympics