Mechanical Turk
The history of Wolfgang von Kempelen’s Mechanical Turk . (Amazon Mechanical Turk)


The technology world we live in today simply extends beyond comprehension. It is a fantastic world where you routinely feel like Charlie in the chocolate factory - amazed at what can be done. I had started feeling slightly jaded to the fact that I can earn a decent living selling a non-physical product created by a group of virtual team members to clients I rarely see.

The sense of profound awe was back when I decided to bite the bullet and sign up on Facebook - the second most popular social networking site after MySpace. Within a couple of days of signing up and mildly poking around, I had connected with a few dozen long-lost (and, in cases, completely forgotten) friends and acquaintences. The joy and satisfaction of connecting again with childhood friends and talking about Ethiopian food that we grew up on was probably the highlight of the past month. A week in, I am utilizing widgets written by users that hook into the Facebook application constantly, in the process positioning myself as one mean “vampire-biter” and a generous virtual gift-giver. To boot, the IQ Test widget tells me that compared to my friends, I am on the challenged side. And the movie widget tells me that I have absolutely nothing in common with Phil my business partner.

In this week of discovery, I also stumbled upon Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. In a world where the human workforce is constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed like Lego pieces, to the constant buzz of words like outsourcing, offshore sourcing, onshore sourcing, and rural sourcing, we can now add another term: “micro-sourcing” (or if you like it better “crowdsourcing”). The idea behind micro-sourcing is simple. In the constant pursuit of cutting labor costs, a lot has been automated. However, there still remain a large swath of simple tasks - like pattern recognition or interpreting the emotion behind a statement - that people do much better than computers. So how to bring cost-efficiency to these processes? Here’s where Mechanical Turk comes in. Mechanical Turk is quite simple and quite brilliant - use a huge pool of internet-connected people with a bit of free time to perform very tiny, simple, routine tasks.

Say a company wants to go through 100,000 images and sort them based on which ones have a human face in it. Hiring people to do this is costly and time-consuming. Micro-sourcing solves this dilemma by farming out the project in tiny chunks to a multitude of people connected to the internet. So now, you have 50,000 people that take five seconds to tag two pictures as “has human face” or “no face here”. For their time, they maybe make a penny. They do it simply because they have nothing better to do at that moment and the task is mildly interesting. Cost to the firm for this picture categorization task? $500. Time to completion? Theoretically, if all people do their two pictures that day - one day!

The applications are too many to count. Some examples include transcription of texts, optical character recognition, data manipulation, content monitoring, gauging consumer sentiment, market and product research, and so forth.

Real life examples? Write a small Facebook widget that allows people to upload a picture of themselves and that picture is sent via Mechanical Turk to be rated on an attractiveness scale of 1-10. Instant feedback on the picture is provided that shows a person their “attractiveness” as ranked by a multitude of people. The user may even be able to drill down and see how different geographic regions ranked their attractiveness. Their score can then be displayed and shared with friends who virally installing the widget themselves. Monetizing such an endeavor? Maybe use the most often used scheme in social network applications - advertising. A less trifle example would be using the network reach of Facebook and/or Mechanical Turk to code free-text survey responses that are a common part of research surveys at universities or think tanks.