Who are the crowd actors doing this work? One is U?ur Büyük?ahin, a third-year geological engineering student in Ankara, Turkey, and star of hundreds of videos in Twenty Billion’s collection. He estimates spending about 7 to 10 hours a week on Mechanical Turk, earning roughly as much as he did in a shift with good tips at the restaurant where he used to work. Büyük?ahin says Twenty Billion is one of his favorites, because it pays well, and promptly. Their sometimes odd assignments don’t bother him. “Some people may be shy about taking hundreds of videos in the supermarket, but I’m not,” Büyük?ahin says. His girlfriend, by nature less outgoing, was initially wary of the project, but has come around after seeing his earnings, some of which have translated into gifts, such as a new set of curling tongs.

Büyük?ahin and another Turker I speak with, Casey Cowden, a 31-year-old in Johnson City, Tennessee, tell me I’ve been doing crowd acting all wrong. All in, my 10 videos earned me an hourly rate of around $4.60. They achieve much higher rates by staying in the supermarket for as long as hours, binging on Twenty Billion’s tasks.

Büyük?ahin says his personal record is 110 supermarket videos in a single hour. He uses a gimbal for higher-quality shots, batting away inquisitive store employees when necessary by bluffing about a university research project in AI. Cowden calculates that he and a friend each earned an hourly rate of $11.75 during two and half hours of crowd acting in a local Walmart. That’s more than Walmart’s $11 starting wage, or the $7.75 or so Cowden’s fiancee earns at Burger King.

Cowden seems to have more fun than Walmart employees, too. He began Turking early last year, after the construction company he was working for folded. Working from home means he can be around to care for his fiancee’s mother, who has Alzheimer’s. He says he was initially drawn to Twenty Billion’s assignments because, with the right strategy, they pay better than the data-entry work that dominates Mechanical Turk. But he also warmed to the idea of working on a technological frontier. Cowden tells me he tries to vary the backdrop, and even the clothing he wears, in different shoots. “You can’t train a robot to shop in a supermarket if the videos you have are all the same,” Cowden tells me. “I try to go the whole nine yards so the programming can get a diverse view.”


Mechanical Turk has often been called a modern-day sweatshop. A recent study found that median pay was around $2 an hour. But it lacks the communal atmosphere of a workhouse. The site’s labor is atomized into individuals working from homes or phones around the world.

Crowd acting sometimes give workers a chance to look each other in the face. Twenty Billion employs contract workers who review crowd-acting videos. But in a tactic common on Mechanical Turk, the startup sometimes uses crowd workers to review other crowd workers. I am paid 10 cents to review 50 clips of crowd actors working on the startup’s automotive project. I click to indicate if a worker stuck to the script—“falling asleep while sitting,” “drinking something from a cup or can,” or “holding something in both hands.”


I find the videos while trying to unmask the person behind crowd-acting jobs on Mechanical Turk from the “AI Indoors Project.” Forums where crowd workers gather to gripe and swap tips reveal that it’s a collaboration between Carnegie Mellon University and the Allen Institute for AI in Seattle. Like Twenty Billion, they are gathering crowd-acted videos by the thousand to try and improve algorithms’ understanding of the physical world and what we do in it. Nearly 10,000 clips have already been released for other researchers to play with in a collection aptly named Charades.