Finally the tables are turning! Humanity is striking back against the emergent robotic over-culture by integrating human intelligence into software.

Amazon's Mechanical Turk service has long provided a cheap source of labor, when the job is simple for humans but difficult for computers. Tasks such as describing a picture, for example, can be completed online by remote, human workers. Programmers already use groups of these workers, called turkers, to do many such tasks at the same time. But Mechanical Turk offers no easy way for programmers developing new software applications to combine and coordinate the turkers' efforts. Now computer scientists at MIT have developed a toolkit that does just that. Called TurKit, the tool lets software engineers write algorithms to coordinate online workers using the Javascript programming language, and create powerful applications that have human intelligence built in. The software can also be debugged like normal code. ...

Another Mechanical Turk application, called VizWiz, is being developed to allow blind users to identify objects, such as street signs or pantry items, with the help of their smart phone cameras and sighted turkers. Ideally, VizWiz will work fast, so that users get results when they need them most. University of Rochester computer scientist Jeffrey Bigham and his team used TurKit to create an algorithm, called quikTurkit, that reduces lag time by queueing up groups of turkers before they are needed. When a user activates VizWiz's camera, quikTurkit signals turkers that a new query is imminent--either recruiting new workers on demand or sending the request to a pool of eight turkers already engaged in answering previous queries. The former method returns results to the user within a couple of minutes; the latter averages less than 30 seconds. "If you're running an expensive optical character recognition app on your phone, it might take that long to give you an answer anyway," says Bigham, "whereas VizWiz is smarter and could be cheaper."

Ray Kurzweil would probably laugh at such an approach, believing that artificial intelligence will quickly (eventually?) make such human-software-human hybrids obsolete. The tasks performed by Mechanical Turk's turkers are almost exactly those that are most within reach of existing AI algorithms... but of course there's a big difference between "within reach" and "grasped".

Further, there's something inherently discomforting about legions of anonymous turkers who take orders from software. Sure, that software is itself under the control of a human... for now. Rather than "striking back" at computers by taking their jobs, I'm inclined to see the Mechanical Turk as an early form of robotic overlord.

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