Amazon looks to solve problems that stump computers

"Mechanical Turk" lets developers tap global network of humans to handle small tasks that are part of larger software processes.

Borrowing from the sleight of hand of an 18th century Hungarian nobleman, Amazon.com has unveiled a new service that aims to leverage the power of human intelligence as a way to tackle high volumes of repeatable tasks.

The service, known as Amazon Mechanical Turk, is a marketplace where developers can post small manual tasks that are part of larger software processes. Individuals who complete the tasks are paid a small fee.

Mechanical Turk is named for Wolfgang von Kempelen's 1769 chess-playing automaton that beat nearly all challengers thanks to a human chess master hidden deep inside the so-called machine. The service is ostensibly about employing human brainpower to solve large numbers of small problems that computers are ill equipped to address.

"The premise behind Amazon Mechanical Turk is that there are certain things that human beings do better than computers," said Adam Selipsky, Amazon's vice president of product management and developer relations. "Mechanical Turk allows developers and businesses to programmatically integrate human intelligence into software applications."

As an example, Amazon's director of Web service software Peter Cohen pointed to the company's A9 search service and its yellow pages feature. That service offers users photographs of, for example, pizza restaurants near specific addresses. But he said that asking a computer to choose the best one from a number of possible images isn't practical. A person, on the other hand, could make such a decision in seconds.

And because many of the tasks posted on the marketplace can similarly be finished in seconds or minutes, the pay for them is frequently in the three-to-five cents range. But someone working to help choose pictures for A9, Cohen suggested, could earn enough money to make it worth their while over time.

And of course, Amazon hopes the marketplace will be worth its while as well. Cohen said the company will collect a 10 percent fee for brokering deals between developers and those fulfilling their tasks.

To Philipp Lenssen, the author of the blog, Google Blogoscoped, Mechanical Turk is a valuable approach to a long-standing challenge.

"In programming, there are certain types of problems which are very hard--or impossible, as of now--to solve," said Lenssen. "Take, for example, the question every child could answer: In this photo, is there a woman or a man? It would take one second for a 5-year-old. But for a computer programmer, this could become the job of a lifetime to automate."

Lenssen said he's particularly interested in Amazon's new tool because it's very similar to an idea he had proposed last March called the Collaborative Human Interpreter. The concept, he wrote at the time, was "a programming language to query a global brain, tackling previously impossible-to-automate problems."

Ultimately, he added, approaches like the Mechanical Turk or his CHI are useful because "they make available to the programmer the power of the masses."

In any case, Amazon acknowledges that the Mechanical Turk is still too new to know exactly what kind of tasks will dominate the marketplace.

The service will be driven by the unanticipated needs of people with projects that don't exist yet, leaving Cohen and Selipsky to look forward to seeing what emerges.

"It's the early days, and we want to be surprised," said Selipsky. "We expect (people) to come up with exciting and unanticipated applications."

 

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