Amazon Mechanical Turk - Humans Help Slow Computers

Amazon recently introduced a new program called Amazon Mechanical Turk. This program provides a web services API (a programmer's toolkit) for letting computers enlist the aid of humans for those tasks that humans are good at (and computers are not).


(18th Century Mechanical Turk)

..humans still significantly outperform the most powerful computers at completing such simple tasks as identifying objects in photographs – something children can do even before they learn to speak.

When we think of interfaces between human beings and computers, we usually assume that the human being is the one requesting that a task be completed, and the computer is completing the task and providing the results. What if this process were reversed and a computer program could ask a human being to perform a task and return the results?

...Developers use the Amazon Mechanical Turk web services API to submit tasks to the Amazon Mechanical Turk web site, approve completed tasks, and incorporate the answers into their software applications... A network of humans fuels this Artificial Intelligence by coming to the web site, searching for and completing tasks, and receiving payment for their work.

Amazon's program is named after a famous hoax of the 18th century (see picture above). The "Mechanical Turk" was presented as an autonomous machine that could play chess; in fact, it had a secret compartment that hid a chess master who operated the dummy.

In his 1995 novel The Calcutta Chromosome, Amitav Ghosh writes about an artificial intelligence named Ava that is exactly like the Amazon Mechanical Turk application - and about the human beings who perform exactly the same kind of tasks:

Antar had met children who were like that: Why? What? When? Where? How? But children asked because they were curious; with these AVA/Iie systems it was something else - something that he could only think of as a simulated urge for self-improvement. ..

She wouldn't stop until Antar had told her everything he knew about whatever [picture] that she was playing with on her screen… Once she'd wrung the last meaningless detail out of him, she'd give the object on her screen a final spin, with a bizarrely human smugness, before propelling it into horizonless limbo of her memory.
(Read more about Ava)

At present, it appears that the program is aimed at relatively low value tasks, like identifying objects in pictures. However, as applications move up the value chain, who knows what machines might ask people to do for them?

Read more at Amazon. If you are interested in the earliest mention of a chess-playing robot in sf, see autonomous chess playing robot from a story published in 1910 by Ambrose Bierce.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 11/14/2005)

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