Thursday, February 16, 2006

Whoa, am *I* ever behind the curve.

I just heard about Amazon's Mechanical Turk, which has been around since last fall. It's kind of innovative, kind of creepy.

From the programmer's point of view, it's a highly asynchronous web service: You make a call to the API, requesting some kind of answer. The question you're trying to answer should be something that's easy for a human, but really hard for a computer (e.g., "Is there a pizza parlor in this picture?") Some time later, you get a return call with your information.

From the human's point of view, you search the site looking for HITs (Human Intelligence Tasks). You accept one, look at the picture, click "No, there is no pizza parlor in this picture of an airport hangar (you dumb computer, you)", and get some micropayment deposited in your Amazon account. Payments I saw on the site ranged from a penny for a 500-word review of a computer game (!), or keying in numbers from a blotchy scanned image of a paper form, to $3 for taking two pictures of a particular address in New York City. So it's probably possible to make minimum wage or even above the poverty line doing this, if you pick your tasks carefully.

Is there a certain Rise Of The Machines creepiness inherent in having hundreds of humans perform tasks as directed by computers? You betcha. Might unemployed people make a couple of bucks to buy groceries? That too.


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