SNS in the News - November 5, 2005

Mechanical Turk offers a new kind of outsourcing


It used to be that humans told computers what to do.

But with the launch of's newest service, called Amazon Mechanical Turk, a computer program will be able to ask humans to perform tasks that it can't do itself.

The name Mechanical Turk dates back to 1769, when a Hungarian created a wooden robotlike mannequin that supposedly could play chess -- even defeating chess fanatic Benjamin Franklin in Paris.

The Mechanical Turk toured around Europe to the amazement of large crowds and to the suspicion of a great many skeptics who surmised that a chess master was hiding inside. (Edgar Allen Poe even wrote an article detailing how it could be done.)

The invisible human element is the idea behind Amazon Mechanical Turk, through which Amazon plans to supply "artificial artificial intelligence" -- connecting programs needing the human touch with humans, who can outperform computers in certain tasks

Examples of what humans can do better than computers? Evaluate beauty, translate text and find specific objects in photos.

"We've built this program that has an interface to human intelligence," said Peter Cohen, the director of Amazon Web Services software. "To a computer program, the human's input looks like another piece of software, but there is a human being there."

The science-fiction factor is striking, said founder Greg Linden, a former software engineer who led the group responsible for Amazon's personalization features. But he thinks the implications could be even more staggering if Amazon's program takes off.

"This is micro-outsourcing," said Linden. "This program could eliminate so many personnel and training costs -- even temps are expensive, and this allows very small bits of work to be done for very little money."

While outsourcing large projects and division to China and India is very common, Amazon Mechanical Turk brings the dimensions of farming out work to a granular level -- and just about any adult can participate.

Amazon profits by collecting a fee from developers requesting tasks for human performance -- called HITS, or human intelligence tasks. Amazon's search engine has already used the application to cull the best photos for its BlockView pictures, which show users street-level pictures of businesses.

And Amazon has used Mechanical Turk to improve the listings in its automotive store of parts and accessories.

But the service site, launched in beta form Wednesday, had become so popular by Friday that it was clogged and "dysfunctional" -- indicating limited ability to handle its duties, according to Mark Anderson, publisher of the technology newsletter Strategic News Service.

"You may remember earlier tries at this kind of thing, where people sold their services on the Net and the Net served as a broker for people," said Anderson. "I don't think any of these things have worked out."

Wall Street analysts who follow do not expect the service to have any near-term impact on the company's profits or revenues, but at least one thinks it is worth monitoring.

"This is fairly involved, and innovative, programming tool for third parties," wrote Safa Rashtchy, a managing director and senior Internet analyst for Piper Jaffray & Co, in an e-mailed response to questions. "They basically want to be a middleman to get some technical work done."

And the applications of Mechanical Turk "don't have to be programming," said Charlene Li, a principal analyst for Forrester Research.

Li believes that any kind of "pattern recognition that comes with judgment is really hard to program, because with search engine matching technology, used for recruitment and dating, the machines can only do so much in terms of matching a resume to a person."

Assuring the quality of the work provided, once the site is functioning properly, is foremost among the challenges that face Amazon Mechanical Turk and its users.

Adam Selipsky, the vice president of product management and developer relations for Amazon Web Services, said the company will make accuracy histories of participants into a publicly viewable tag to their online name.

Companies can attach requirements, including a minimum standard for workers' past accuracy rates, to the tasks they load into the system. And the work can be put through a two-step process, subject to review by another worker.

A company could also have multiple workers doing the same tasks, accepting only the results that matched the majority of results given.

But for workers, that means they might not get paid, depending on whether someone else did the task better. A company has to accept a result before the worker gets paid, though each participating company has to transfer enough money to an Amazon account to cover payments, just in case.

"Market forces will define how effective it is for requesters and how lucrative it is for workers," said Cohen, noting that companies will set the pricing for tasks. "This is a scalable marketplace for intellectual capital."

On the Net: Find out more about Amazon Mechanical Turk at or

P-I reporter Kristen Millares Bolt

can be reached at 206-448-8142