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Is Automan a step towards autonomy at work, or slavery?

One of the more utopian ideals of the increasingly freelance economy we are heading into is the concept of autonomy: freelancers are free — in principle — form the strictures of office politics, and can pursue their love of graphic design, computer programming, or community management without a boss telling them what to do.

The reality, of course, is more nuanced. At the same time, the workplace is becoming looser, where the average person is able to make more decisions, to take more initiative, and to have a greater say in what work they do. Looser, but faster.

Perhaps work could be sped up even more by replacing the boss altogether?

Daniel Barowy, an artificial intelligence researcher, has created AutoMan, a system that delegates tasks to freelancers via crowdsourcing platforms, like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.

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Barowy and colleagues designed AutoMan to send out jobs, manage workers, accept or reject work and make payments. “You’re replacing people’s bosses with a computer,” he says.

The quality guarantee is the most important contribution of the work, says Barowy. “Without a mechanism for addressing the quality of worker output, full automation is not possible.”

Unlike existing crowdsourcing platforms, AutoMan doesn’t attempt to predict the reliability of its workers based on their previous performance. 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.

Imagine a company that ran totally on crowdsourcing, where an impartial automaton posts work assignments (along with fees), and members of the ‘workcrowd’ opt to take on work through some sort of bidding process. Upon completion, the machinery — or another member of the workcrowd — would determine if the work was adequate for its purpose. Presumably, the determination of what tasks need to be done could likewise be crowdsourced. An entire organization that is all crowd, no boss.

Perhaps a bit scifi even for my tastes, but there is certainly something intriguing about adding artificial intelligence to the mix, if only to manage aspects of the coordination of increasingly independent workers. As Barowy said, “One way to think about it is that it saves the interesting parts, the creative parts, or the fun parts for people. It’s really the best of both worlds. You have the computer doing the grunt work.”