Date I Received This In My Inbox: February 19, 2009Dana Crane sent me a link to a fascinating article about Amazon's Mechanical Turk, and I've been meaning to write about it for, um, 321 days or something.
First off, that's the greatest name ever. The real Mechanical Turk was a chess-playing automaton that was an international sensation in the 18th century. There was an excellent book on the subject (this one, I believe, although I'm not certain because I read it a while back), and the sheer wonder of a machine that could play chess is hard to beat.
It was a hoax, of course, but so well-concealed that it wasn't discovered during the lifetime of the principals.
Here's a description from the Wikipedia entry:
The Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) is one of the suite of Amazon Web Services, a crowdsourcing marketplace that enables computer programs to co-ordinate the use of human intelligence to perform tasks which computers are unable to do. Requesters, the human beings that write these programs, are able to pose tasks known as HITs (Human Intelligence Tasks), such as choosing the best among several photographs of a storefront, writing product descriptions, or identifying performers on music CDs. Workers (called Providers in Mechanical Turk's Terms of Service) can then browse among existing tasks and complete them for a monetary payment set by the Requester.
The pay is, by all acounts, pretty awful, yet people are still interested in performing the tasks. And the service has been used for some remarkably ingenious and whimsical tasks (like drawing sheep, which is mentioned in the article link at the top).