Faux Artificial Intelligence

Stephen DeAngelis

March 30, 2007

Occasionally I have written about how people are developing new ways to tap the power of the Web. For example, last November I noted that Web developers are drafting non-blind Web surfers to label images for the blind in much the same way as Del.icio.us and Wikipedia have tapped them for other information [Web 2.0 for the Blind and Future]. Jason Pontin reports how Jeff Bezos, chief executive of Amazon.com, is tapping that power to create what he calls “artificial artificial intelligence” [“Artificial Intelligence, with Help from the Humans,” New York Times, 25 March 2007]. Pontin writes:

“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 computers’ 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?”

Whereas other efforts have used volunteers to complete tasks (like editing Wikipedia pages or labeling images for the blind), this new effort aims at paying people for what amounts to information age piece work.

“Jeff Bezos … 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 ‘artificial artificial intelligence.’ ‘Normally, a human makes a request of a computer, and the computer does the computation of the task,’ he said. ‘But 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.’ 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.”

Mechanical Turk began in 2005 and now “there are more than 100,000 ‘Turk Workers’ 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.” The miracle of the information age is that such piece work can be farmed out to places where micropayments can achieve macro results in the community. Such a system can also be a bargain for businesses even as it makes money for Mechanical Turk.

“Mechanical Turk’s customers are corporations. By contrast, ChaCha.com, a start-up in Carmel, Ind., uses artificial artificial intelligence — sometimes also called crowdsourcing — to help individual computer users find better results when they search the Web. ChaCha, which began last year, pays 30,000 flesh-and-blood ‘guides’ 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.”

Pontin confirms what I wrote at the beginning of this post:

“Harnessing the collective wisdom of crowds isn’t new. It is employed by many of the ‘Web 2.0’ 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.”

Pontin then decided to find out what it was like to become a Turk Worker.

“What is it like to be an individual component of these digital, collective minds? To find out, I experimented. After registering at www.mturk.com, I was confronted with a table of HITs that I could perform, together with the price that I would be paid. I first accepted a job from ContentSpooling.net that asked me to write three titles for an article about annuities and their use in retirement planning. Then I viewed a series of images apparently captured from a vehicle moving through the gray suburbs of North London, and, at the request of Geospatial Vision, a division of the British technology company Oxford Metrics Group, identified objects like road signs and markings. For all this, my Amazon account was credited the lordly sum of 12 cents. The entire experience lasted no more than 15 minutes, and from my point of view, as an occluded part of the hive-mind, it made no sense at all.”

Apparently Pontin isn’t ready to become part of Bezos’ Borg Collective, but consider the possibilities for others. Pontin’s efforts resulted in an hourly wage of 48 cents (or $3.84 for an eight-hour day). In areas where people now live on less than a dollar a day, these are not bad wages (but wages only available if they can get sufficient education to use and have access to the necessary technology). Such work would be a particular godsend in war torn areas where landmines have left thousands maimed and incapable of performing many other tasks. This is another form of the global commute and indicates why Tom Barnett is so keen on connecting Gap countries with the Core.

Pontin then decided to see what it was like being a consumer of a guide-assisted Web search. He wasn’t very happy with the results:

“At 2:40 p.m. on March 14, I asked ChaCha, ‘Who was Evelyn Waugh’s commanding officer in the Commandos during World War II?’ In an instant-messaging window, CandieSue22087 immediately welcomed me to ChaCha and asked me to be patient. At 2:44, CandieSue threw up her virtual hands and transferred me to another guide, Tressie57635, who referred me to an academic paper on ‘suffixal sound symbolism in the novels of Evelyn Waugh.’ When I protested, Tressie complained that it was a hard search, and at 2:49 she gave up, typing that I might do better with yet another guide. When I agreed, Tressie accidentally ended the search altogether — but not before serving me a page of 12 search results, not one of which was relevant. A quick search on Google quickly provided the right answer.”

Pontin raises two concerns about this kind of Web 2.0 human intervention:

“There have been two common objections to artificial artificial intelligence. The first, confirmed by my own experiences 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. ‘There 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,’ she wrote. The ever-genial Mr. Bezos dismisses the criticism. ‘MTurk is a marketplace where folks who have work meet up with folks who want to do work,’ he said. Why do people become Turk Workers and ChaCha Guides? In poor countries, the money earned could offer a significant contribution to a family’s wealth. But even Mr. Bezos concedes that Turk Workers from rich countries probably can’t live on the small sums involved.”

In a previous post [Groupthink: Good or Bad?], I noted that collective wisdom works great if you are dealing with informed and intelligent people — but the Internet offers no such assurances. You get what you get and buyers must beware. As to the second objection, I agree with Bezos that you must look at circumstances before you start judging such piece work too harshly. I view MTurk work as a starter labor that can help families get further ahead than they might otherwise be. Calling it sweatshop work is neither productive nor accurate. Certainly no one is going to get rich doing it, but it opens a world of much greater opportunity. Even Core workers can benefit:

“Mitch Fernandez, 38, a disabled former United States Army linguist, said by e-mail that he became a Turk Worker for various reasons: ‘At first, I was just curious about the idea of crowdsourcing.’ But he said he soon found that by working about two hours a day, he could often earn more than $100 a week. In the last nine months he made around $4,000, which he used to buy a high-definition television, a DVD player and a new subwoofer — all from Amazon.com.”

Fernandez says the work is also therapeutic for him, a point I made above for others in his condition around the world. I believe that once you put technology in the hands of people they will quickly learn to make more of it than people expect.