Monday, November 19, 2007

Mechanical Turk: Crowdsourcing goes mainstream!

We've long been interested in crowdsourcing as a growing social phenomenon--where the collective knowledge and expertise of crowds (irrespective of actual "credentials" etc.) is tapped as an important knowledge and resource building resource. has recently released Mechanical Turk, a service that capitalizes on the fact that there are some tasks that humans can do much better than computers (e.g., distinguish specific items within a photo). The nomeclature "mechanical turk" is a direct remix of von Kempelen's "mechanical chess-playing automaton" (c. 1796) which appeared to be a complex machine (with intricate cogs and gears revealed via a sliding back-panel) that was able to beat any number of well-known chess players. Later it was found that the automaton actually concealed a live and very skillful human chess master... This history resonates with Amazon's Mechanical Turk tag line: "Artificial artificial intelligence" where humans collectively contribute intelligence that can then be manipulated by computers in different ways (e.g., in the form of solving software coding problems, providing preference lists for subsequent aggregation and comparison).

In terms of how Amazon's Mechnical Turk operates, you sign in using your Amazon account and check which tasks you're qualified to complete. These tasks are referred to as "HITS" -- human intelligence tasks. HITS we've completed so far include ranking our favourite 3 songs on particular music albums, ranking favourite foods, and so on. Each HIT completed (and accepted by the requestor behind the HIT earns a specified amount of "reward" dollars and cents that are later credited to your Amazon account (so far we've completed 13 HITs for a grand total of $0.13 reward cents--we're off to a strong start! We see some HITS offering $5.00 in reward for an accepted response, so there's our next set of tasks!).

Or, you yourself can sign-up to be a "requestor" and post a HIT to which you would like people to respond. In fact, that's how we came to know about Mechanical Turk--through reading Hugh Hancock and Johnnie Ingram's suggestion for finding beta viewers for one's new machinima show.

Time will tell how successful Mechanical Turk is in terms of getting stuff done in manageable and streamlined ways, but it's unquestionably a watershed moment in ongoing trends towards collective intelligence mediated by online services and applications. We can't help but think of James Surowiecki's claim that "under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them" (The Wisdom of Crowds, 2005, xiii). Perhaps Mechanical Turk will turn out to be one of those "right circumstances".

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