Artificial Artificial Intelligence

In between selling books and Kindles, Amazon loves to play with the cloud. The main offering is Amazon Web Services, where you can buy a chunk of their server grunt to process what you like, which has become so successful that even competitors like Netflix use it to power their service. Then there are the slightly more quirky services like Mechanical Turk.

Have you got a task that’s too boring or time consuming to do yourself? Log on to the Mechanical Turk, ask it to perform that task in human language, leave it to process and it will deliver what you want, sometimes within a few hours. So how did Amazon develop such a sophisticated artificial intelligence engine? Easy: it didn’t.

The Mechanical Turk is named after a 19th century chess playing machine that beat Napolean and Benjamin Franklin. But, the machine was in fact, like a Victorian R2D2, just a robot case with a small human inside. And Amazon’s Mechanical Turk is a similar concept – instead of being a cloud-based artificial intelligence tool, it’s an artificial artificial intelligence tool. Behind the veil, the Mechanical Turk is a marketplace where thousands of people (Turkers) compete to process your request for a small fee.

This might sound like a fairly Heath Robinson way of pretending to have vast tracts of computing power, but it’s actually a clever way of augmenting the power of computers. Amazon originally set it up to allow them to perform tasks where human intelligence was better and quicker than machines, such as voice recognition, or judging the quality of images. The main Amazon store also uses Turkers to validate complimentary goods suggestions thrown up by their own algorithms – if any strange combinations are suggested, the Turkers reject them. This is then fed back to the algorithms to improve their hit rate.

Since its inception, the Mechanical Turk has grown massively, with over 500,000 Turkers keenly awaiting tasks to perform. This huge pool of human intelligence has attracted other users. Twitter use Turker intelligence to improve its artificial intelligence. They engage a pool of Turkers to help them understand what search queries and hashtags are about. This can help a lot, because machines are usually super-brilliant at spotting sarcasm. Scientists have also found a good use for easy access to humans. Sociologists use the Mechanical Turk to fill in surveys as part of experiments, tapping into a worldwide resource more diverse than their usual volunteers of undergraduates at their universities.

Other firms use Turkers for slightly more nefarious purposes. A computer hardware manufacturer recently got in a little hot water for asking Turkers to post 5 star reviews for their products on review websites.

Mechanical Turk isn’t the only service out there. Odesk offers IT support, UpCounsel offers legal advice and Rev offers a translation service, all remotely powered by a marketplace of overhead-free human brains. But this sea of human intelligence has a problem: human intelligence. Because there are no barriers to competition, and there is no way to differentiate themselves, human nature has meant that pricing becomes a race for the bottom as Turkers fight to get the tasks. Although it’s difficult to get data on “wages”, some surveys have suggested that average earnings are between $2 and $3 per hour (between £1.50 and £2). This obviously makes the Mechanical Turk an appealing option for firms looking to farm out work with no inconvenient overheads or employment law worries, but not so great for the Turkers.

This has led the Turkers to begin to rebel and organise, in a reverse-SkyNet move. A group of Turkers subverted the anonymisation rules and contacted each other to send a letter to Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, demanding that they be recognised as people, not production units.
Even against these concerns, having an enormous pool of human brains at your behest could allow tasks to be completed that would otherwise be impossible. That leaves just one question: can you tell whether this article came from Contently or not?"

If you would like to discuss these issues, or the impact of emerging technology on your industry, then please get in touch with Euan Cameron.

Read more articles on