COMPUTERS still do some things very poorly. Even when they pool their memory and processors in powerful networks, they remain unevenly intelligent. Things that humans do with little conscious thought, such as recognizing patterns or meanings in images, language or concepts, only baffle the machines.
These lacunae in computersâ€™ abilities would be of interest only to computer scientists, except that many individuals and companies are finding it harder to locate and organize the swelling mass of information that our digital civilization creates.
The problem has prompted a spooky, but elegant, business idea: why not use the Web to create marketplaces of willing human beings who will perform the tasks that computers cannot? Jeff Bezos, the chief executive ofÂ Amazon.com, has created Amazon Mechanical Turk, an online service involving human workers, and he has also personally invested in a human-assisted search company called ChaCha. Mr. Bezos describes the phenomenon very prettily, calling it â€œartificial artificial intelligence.â€
Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) is a crowdsourcing Internet marketplace enabling individuals and businesses (known as Requesters) to coordinate the use of human intelligence to perform tasks that computers are currently unable to do. Employers are able to post jobs known as Human Intelligence Tasks (HITs), such as choosing the best among several photographs of a storefront, writing product descriptions, or identifying performers on music CDs. Workers (called Providers in Mechanical Turk’s Terms of Service, or, more colloquially, Turkers) can then browse among existing jobs and complete them in exchange for a monetary payment set by the employer. To place jobs, the requesting programs use an open application programming interface(API), or the more limited MTurk Requester site.
â€œNormally, a human makes a request of a computer, and the computer does the computation of the task,â€ he said. â€œBut artificial artificial intelligences like Mechanical Turk invert all that. The computer has a task that is easy for a human but extraordinarily hard for the computer. So instead of calling a computer service to perform the function, it calls a human.â€
Mechanical Turk began life as a service that Amazon itself needed. (The name recalls a famous 18th-century hoax, where what seemed to be a chess-playing automaton really concealed a human chess master.) Amazon had millions of Web pages that described individual products, but it wanted to weed out the duplicate pages. Software could help, but algorithmically eliminating all the duplicates was impossible, according to Mr. Bezos. So the company began to develop a Web site where people would look at product pages and be paid a few cents for every duplicate page they correctly identified.
Mr. Bezos figured that what had been useful to Amazon would be valuable to other businesses, too. The company opened Mechanical Turk as a public site in November 2005. Today, there are more than 100,000 â€œTurk Workersâ€ in more than 100 countries who earn micropayments in exchange for completing a wide range of quick tasks called HITs, for human intelligence tasks, for various companies.
Mechanical Turkâ€™s customers are corporations. By contrast, ChaCha.com, a start-up in Carmel, Ind., uses artificial artificial intelligence â€” sometimes also called crowdsourcing â€” to help individual computer users find better results when they search the Web. ChaCha, which began last year, pays 30,000 flesh-and-blood â€œguidesâ€ working from home or the local coffee shop as much as $10 an hour to direct Web surfers to the most relevant resources.
Amazon makes money from Mechanical Turk by charging companies 10 percent of the price of a successfully completed HIT. For simple HITs that cost less than 1 cent, Amazon charges half a cent. ChaCha intends to make money the way most other search companies do: by charging advertisers for contextually relevant links and advertisements.
Harnessing the collective wisdom of crowds isnâ€™t new. It is employed by many of the â€œWeb 2.0â€ social networks like Digg and Del.icio.us, which rely on human readers to select the most worthwhile items on the Web to read. But creating marketplaces of mercenary intelligences is genuinely novel.
What is it like to be an individual component of these digital, collective minds?
THERE have been two common objections to artificial artificial intelligence. The first, searching on ChaCha, is that the networks are no more intelligent than their smartest members. Katharine Mieszkowski, writing last year on Salon.com, raised the second, more serious criticism. She saw Mechanical Turk as a kind of virtual sweatshop. â€œThere is something a little disturbing about a billionaire like Bezos dreaming up new ways to get ordinary folk to do work for him for pennies,â€ she wrote.
The ever-genial Mr. Bezos dismisses the criticism. â€œMTurk is a marketplace where folks who have work meet up with folks who want to do work,â€ he said.
Why do people become Turk Workers and ChaCha Guides? In poor countries, the money earned could offer a significant contribution to a familyâ€™s wealth. But even Mr. Bezos concedes that Turk Workers from rich countries probably canâ€™t live on the small sums involved. â€œThe people Iâ€™ve seen commenting on blogs seem mostly to be using MTurk as a supplemental form of income,â€ he said.
We probably have at least another 25 years before computers are more powerful than human brains, according to the most optimistic artificial intelligence experts. Until then, people will be able to sell their idle brains to the companies and people who need the special processing power that they alone possess through marketplaces like Mechanical Turk and ChaCha.
Editor’s note: Article inspiredÂ from ‘NY Times’
Jason Pontin. “Artificial intelligence, with help from humans”
NY Times. N.p., Web. 07Â July. 2016.