Thursday, April 28, 2011

Mechanical turk games

For those who don't know. Mechanical Turk is an online service from Amazon. Essentially it's a way to commoditize simple tasks. Like editing for spelling, or specific types of searches, or putting everything from one database into a different one with a new format. The name comes from a chess playing robot built in the 18th century, which turned out to be a marvelous fraud.

If you're buying... you put up what kind of work you want done. Short is good "transcribe this audio clip, ten seconds"... And how much you will pay: "20 cents"..  And how much time you give  to do it.  "one hour" There are tools available that can be used to divide a large project into manageable chunks (say, a four hour speech divided into ten second clips).

If you're working, you look through the list picking out which ones you are willing to do, and when you select one, immediately the job is there in front of you... generally the work takes little time to do, and rather quickly you've done so many of these little tasks that the money starts to really add up. A quick and efficient person could bang out  fifty of these jobs in an hour.

A great deal of the people doing the mechanical Turk work live in countries where the prices are very much attractive. This all by itself is boosting independent freelance work all over the world... At the same time, it's practically the poster child for "offshoring"

A friend of mine pointed out something that blew my mind. There are programs online that can automate much of this.  He summarized an article he had read online.


    Someone created a software application that automatically sent out a request for a list of tourist attractions in New York. From those answers, the software created lists and asked for suggestion on what should be used (as kind of a filter). From that, there was a number of steps where people were incrementally hired to refine the result (not knowing the process was automated). Sorting, rearranging, reviewing, voting, etc. In the end, the result was a nice encyclopedia of tourist attractions in New York. And it was all controlled by automatic SW. The SW isn't perfect yet. But it may be a hint on what can be done if a problem can be broken down into smaller steps. The SW can then replace management, and we humans are reduced the the low level workers. 

As near as I can tell, this may be the first systemic organization where computer programs are directly dictating tasks and terms for humans to follow. Not only that, this is the first I'm aware of that the workers may or may not know if their "boss" is human.

If someone knows of any more examples, I'd love to hear about them.