In my last article, I talked about companies that provide services to businesses that otherwise wouldn't have access to certain services, or don't want the headaches of "high-touch" tasks -- those that entail human involvement instead of computer automation. Now Amazon.com
Veering from its traditional course of just selling stuff on the Internet, Amazon is beginning to mine the incredible infrastructure that made its empire so vast and scalable. In addition to helping other entrepreneurs make their own businesses more robust, Amazon presciently saw that the millions of dollars it invested into its own technological infrastructure could also be a source of recurring revenue.
Broadly labeled as "Web Services," Amazon's offerings allow developers and companies to leverage everything from their payment infrastructure to on-demand computing and storage capacity. Instead of having users register at your website when they need to make a purchase, how about letting them log in, pay, and ship based on their existing Amazon profiles? Need more computing horsepower for the holiday season, or a seasonal advertising campaign? Amazon will sell it to you on demand, and you can pay only for what you need and use.
What's a Mechanical Turk?
Another part of this initiative involves what Amazon calls the "Mechanical Turk." This intriguing option allows people to execute so-called human-intelligence tasks (HITs) that are relatively easy for humans to accomplish but that might be much harder for a computer.
Tagging photographs is a popular example. If an online photo merchant has a million photos in stock, and some of them are scanned upside-down, it's much easier for a human than for a computer to find the errant snapshots.
At its core, this is a really powerful idea. I can imagine all sorts of business functions that could leverage the Turk easily and in a way that is more cost-effective than, say, hiring a temp to come in and sip your coffee while pretending to do work all day. By using the Turk, any company, big or small, can take advantage of quality, low-cost, global, and on-demand workers that they wouldn't otherwise have access to. Sounds great, right?
Danger, Will Robinson
However, the Turk also presents a hidden liability that has gone largely unaddressed.
It relies on people, of course -- but on people who are often based overseas and are willing to work for much less than U.S. workers are.
My immediate question is this: Does Amazon take any measures to make sure that the workforce is not made up of children? How can they know for sure? The question is bound to get asked. All it would take is a single story of a parent having a 10-year-old stay home from school to "tag" images all day, and this whole operation could become a public-relations nightmare for Amazon.
Amazon is an admirable company on many levels, and I am not accusing it of anything untoward. So far, the Turk seems to be on the up-and-up. But the larger point is that Amazon is a technology company, and the Turk is a business extension that is ultimately about harnessing people. So how will the company react as it moves from being a technology outfit that was always seen as socially friendly to an outsourcing platform that takes advantage of wage inequalities?
For Amazon, this is in some ways a shift in business and in identity. And I think it's important for Amazon to address the questions that come out of that shift -- labor practices being just one example.
The idea of globalization and flexible work forces has been with us for some time now, and with it comes complex questions about corporate social responsibility. Technology like the Mechanical Turk introduces incredible efficiencies to productivity, but it also raises complex social questions. I hope Amazon and others continue to introduce innovative technologies -- even ones that create these questions -- but let's also hope they come up with answers to the questions that will inevitably arise.
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