Automating the mechanical turk

Amazon's mechanical turkAmazon has a unique service, Mechanical Turk, that they refer to as “artificial artificial intelligence.” The original mechanical turk, back in the 18th century, was a chess-playing machine that eventually turned out to have a real person inside. The secret was kept for years despite rampant speculation.

Amazon’s captured the essential concept on a much larger scale. Their service, providing ways for programs and websites to request human intervention for tasks where humans are simply better equipped to provide answers. These include things like image recognition and language transcription, where computers lack the nuance to do a high-quality job.

One of the many unique applications I’ve seen is a map company that has turk workers draw a line on a small satellite photo to identify exactly where the road lies. Their maps are tremendously accurate and they can make rapid updates thanks to this simple human intervention. Another service uses people to transcribe podcasts. They’ve even set up a second batch of tasks, where workers evaluate the accuracy of the transcriptions. In this way they can to ensure overall quality service to their customer with limited need for oversight. Basically, the oversight is already built into the process.

Tasks are known as “HITs,” which stands for “Human Intelligence Tasks.” Most HITs are quick and simple; pay is generally a few cents each. A few run $1 or more, but not many. Keep in mind this level of wage is more likely to draw third-world workers than domestic.

The absolute most creative use of Mechanical Turk: The Sheep Market, an interactive online art experiment. Hear more directly from artist Aaron Koblin:

Now that you are inspired with a dose of out-of-the-box creativity, what simple, repetitive tasks are required in your business? Do you need your own mechanical turk? Here are a few examples to get you started:

  • Online research (trivia, competitors, information-gathering)
  • Writing (reviews, website updates, articles, blog comments)
  • Photo evaluation (identification, selection, matching)

Find all the details on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk Welcome page.

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