Eric Church, life hacker

Why humans have the best artificial intelligence

Ever heard of Amazon’s new company, Mechanical Turk? The concept is pretty simple: You sign up as a Turk, and go to the site to see what jobs are available. The jobs all consist of some simple task that can be performed at your computer — such as viewing pictures of shoes and tagging them based on what color they are. You get a few pennies per job, and according to a recent story in Salon, some people make up to $30 a day by clicking away at these nearly-mindless tasks during slow moments at their day job.

What I love about the Mechanical Turk is that it capitalizes on an interesting limitation in artificial intelligence: Computers suck at many tasks that are super-easy for humans. Any idiot can look at picture and instantly recognize that it’s a picture of a pink shoe. Any idiot can listen to a .wav file and realize it’s the sound of a dog baring. But computer scientists have spent billions trying to train software to do this, and they’ve utterly failed.

So if you’re company with a big database of pictures that need classifying, why spent tens of thousands on image-recognition software that sucks? Why not just spend a couple grand — if that — getting bored cubicle-dwellers and Bangalore teenagers to do the work for you, at 3 cents a picture? As Amazon notes in its FAQ:

For software developers, the Amazon Mechanical Turk web service solves the problem of building applications that until now have not worked well because they lack human intelligence. Humans are much more effective than computers at solving some types of problems, like finding specific objects in pictures, evaluating beauty, or translating text. The Amazon Mechanical Turk web service gives developers a programmable interface to a network of humans to solve these kinds of problems and incorporate this human intelligence into their applications.

Mind you, while the cognitive-science aspects of the Mechanical Turk are incredibly cool, the labor dimensions freak the hell out of high-tech labor unions. “What Amazon is trying to do is create the virtual day laborer hiring hall on the global scale to bid down wage rates to the advantage of the employer,” as one WashTech organizer argues. Either way, it’s a really odd way to think of human intelligence: Just more processing time, a few more cycles in the machine, and the global community of freelance workers a massively-parallel computer, floating out there in the aether like the world’s hugest graphics card.

I actually wrote a little essay for Wired in 2002 that predicted this, sort of.

(Thanks to Jason Fisher for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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