Saturday, November 05, 2005

The Mechanical Turk

It's one a.m. on Friday night/Saturday morning, and I'm working. The reason this is happening is because a) I work on the internet, in all its 24-hour, global reaching glory, b) something is broken with said internet, and c) some of the people who work on part of this internet live in India, and this is the time during which both parties are awake.

The Mechanical Turk was a chess-playing automaton built by an 18th Century Hungarian. It was a box with a mannequin attached to it, with a chess board on top of the box. The box was visibly filled with gears and springs, and it seemed you could wind up the box, and the mannequin would play chess against any opponent, and almost always win.

Mechanical Turk is also the name of the project that's keeping me up late into the night tonight. It's an idea that sounds either very cool or completely useless, depending upon what kind of mood you're in. The idea is that humans are good at some tasks computers are not good at, such as recognizing if a photo contains a picture of a particular person, or writing an essay, or whatever. If you're writing a computer program, and you want to, e.g., evaluate a photostream, you'd like to be able to write something like this:

/* publish only photos that contain
that God of Rock and Roll, The Edge
foreach p (photostream) {
if (doesPhotoContainTheEdge(p)) {

What you had to do previously is get a person to look at the photos and choose some. What Mechanical Turk lets you do is...get a person to look at the photos and choose some. You pay them three cents or so for doing it, and the Mechanical Turk website runs the process in between somebody looking at the photos and turning that into information you can aquire from a computer program, plus the administrivia of getting people paid (and taking a cut) and making sure workers are doing a reasonable job. It's banking on the idea that there are enough people in the world with nothing better to do so as to make this massive, constant, virtual artificially intelligent workforce. And that there is going to be some useful application out there in the world for this.

Amazon has become large enough to throw money at things like this, things which are functionally R&D products brought to the market just to see what happens. I gather that basically Jeff Bezos thought it was a cool idea. It might turn in to something, or it might die a swift death after creating a bunch of wonk-fueled buzz this week. What it makes me think of, sitting on the couch with a computer on my lap and a hands-free device in my ear, listening to people on two continents discuss a problem with the website that I already know we're not going to be able to solve tonight, is that no matter how automated a process seems to be, how mechanized the job that's being performed, there are always humans hidden away, deciding how the pieces will be moved. The secret of the original Mechanical Turk was a chess master concealed in the mannequin--the gears were just there for misdirection. Tonight I'm feeling like a lot of these things that look like the work of machines aren't really that much more automated--human intervention is still required. The only thing that has ever changed is how many levels deep it's hidden.

1 comment:

Tarn said...

did you see this? someone thinks you're a custodian at amazon. haha.