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Amazon Mechanical Turk: Artificial AI

By - November 04, 2005


Kevin Kelly sent this my way, and it looked like a hoax, but I don’t think it is, nor does Kevin, and the b’sphere is all over it. Amazon Mechanical Turk. From the overview:

In 1769, Hungarian nobleman Wolfgang von Kempelen astonished Europe by building a mechanical chess-playing automaton that defeated nearly every opponent it faced. A life-sized wooden mannequin, adorned with a fur-trimmed robe and a turban, Kempelen’s “Turk” was seated behind a cabinet and toured Europe confounding such brilliant challengers as Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte. To persuade skeptical audiences, Kempelen would slide open the cabinet’s doors to reveal the intricate set of gears, cogs and springs that powered his invention. He convinced them that he had built a machine that made decisions using artificial intelligence. What they did not know was the secret behind the Mechanical Turk: a chess master cleverly concealed inside.

Today, we build complex software applications based on the things computers do well, such as storing and retrieving large amounts of information or rapidly performing calculations. However, 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? What if it could coordinate many human beings to perform a task?

Amazon Mechanical Turk provides a web services API for computers to integrate “artificial, artificial intelligence” directly into their processing by making requests of humans. 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. To the application, the transaction looks very much like any remote procedure call: the application sends the request, and the service returns the results. In reality, a network of humans fuels this artificial, artificial intelligence by coming to the web site, searching for and completing tasks, and receiving payment for their work.

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13 thoughts on “Amazon Mechanical Turk: Artificial AI

  1. Is it me, or does anyone else think the primary use for this will be for spammers to solve CAPTCHAs?

  2. Derrick says:

    Yes, I was just going to say the same thing. That is the one thing it seems perfect for.

  3. Fazal Majid says:

    Spammers don’t need this to solve CAPTCHAs. They are already using the lure of free porn to get horny teenagers worldwide to solve the CAPTCHAs for them.

  4. markhebert42 says:

    Your buddy J. Weber had (forced) us to read your new book. $27 and 10-days later I gotta say, great friggin’ job. I loved the read (some of the history was a bit dry) and I’ve bookmarked your blog to my toolbar — next to NewWest, eh? Thanks for the hard work and enjoy spending your cut of my 27-bones,

  5. markhebert42 says:

    I should clarify that J.W. didn’t force me to read your book at gun point or shove bamboo splinters under my toenailsto make me buy it; he teaches a class where I go to school. Savvy? I thought not. Thanks again.

  6. Ashfaq Tunio says:

    This is the beginning of a trend – the farming out of small tasks over the Internet to anyone who will take them. Imagine the possibilities and the implications:

    Unemployed, or even semi-employed people looking for extra work can sign up and earn a few extra dollars in their spare time

    The company gets its work done cheaply, without formally hiring people, without paying them benefits, and without any long-term commitment.

    The price of work goes down to the lowest bidder. Although this particular work has been limited to North America, and I see a number of comments about the low wages being offered, you can be sure that pretty soon, similar work will be offered to Third World countries, and you will have people practically fighting over the work, no matter how low the wages go

    Every company will not want or have to start qualifying the workers anew. Independent ranking systems will arise to rank workers as well as employers, just like credit scoring companies.

    Online employent brokerages for this kind of micro-jobs market will arise.

    This kind of work-farming can and will be extended to other, even non-computer based tasks: i.e. watching security or traffic cameras and going out and doing small errands or tasks in your nearby locality (mowing lawns, cleaning, caring for elderly or disabled, baby-sitting, ride-sharing, etc.). It may also be applied to some more structured or technical tasks like writing business plans, developing customer lists, or assembling parts at home.

    This is the beginning of the trend of micro-jobs and flexible employment I’ve identified which would lead to the ‘Ten Billion Person Organization’. Please see my website:

    I’ll be happy to get your feedback, comments, links and referrals on my web-site.

  7. Ron Kass says:

    Should I register 😉 j/k
    I actually don’t think there is anything really wrong with this though. It is just that pricing of a task at 3 cents is really cheap 🙂 but then again, if someone is willing to do it (maybe the task is REALLY easy?), I guess it is ok. (Important to remember: the people do have access to a PC)
    Indeed the possibilities are great, but it is also limited. You can’t really rely on this as a reliable workforce. You can’t use it for trade-secret related tasks. Long term will probably be an issue since the workers will move to the highest paying tasks and many other limitations… So, I guess it is good for very specific tasks.
    Time will tell how it will work and I am sure more systems like Amazon’s one are in the making as we speak.

  8. Makes perfect sense. There are tasks that computers cant yet perform and hihgly paid employees do not wish to do because they are too annoying/repetetive. (Yes, I would be willing to parse product captions for $100/hr but I would not want to do it for $20/hr). There are, however, many people elswhere who would do it for $5/hr or less. Why not take advantage of that?

  9. evstur says:

    a rather clever e-trick to reduce
    the price of employment
    from a federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour

    to a global minimum wage of $0.75 per hour.

    “You can’t stop progress!!” they chortle

    as here in the USA,
    oil prices double yearly,
    defense budgets balloon irrationally,
    debts and deficits explode

    the super sucking sound
    the end of america

  10. It’s not a hoax, after all works as well (redirecting to
    BTW, I proposed their idea a while ago…

  11. Ashfaq Tunio says:

    I would like to develop a search-and-match engine to exactly link up employers and employees for jobs and/or work assignments (including micro-jobs like those being offered by Amazon). I find present job websites (Monster, Workopolis, etc.) too clumsy, slow and tedious. You put in your options and you get a list of openings, many of which do not even match your requirements. Honestly, these job sites are as primitive as the old search engines before Google came along.

    In short, I want to develop the next level job matching engine. I believe it will have immense potential. Would like to meet up with software developers and financers to make it come true.

  12. Fred says:

    Ashfaq Tunio makes a lot of good points, except that it’s more the continuation of the model Google created with Google Answers rather than something new.

    Unemployed, or even semi-employed people looking for extra work can sign up and earn a few extra dollars in their spare time

    The company gets its work done cheaply, without formally hiring people, without paying them benefits, and without any long-term commitment.

    The price of work goes down to the lowest bidder.

    In essence, the last works the same way at GA, as researchers can decline or accept a posted price, dependent on how the feel about the effort/reward ratio.

  13. Rohit Khare says:

    For another look at the same space — the creative use of human attention to solve “hard AI” problems — have a look at a report that one of our summer interns worked on at CommerceNet Labs: QuestionMarket. You can read more about it at