November 9, 2005 5:06 PM PST

Amazon looks to solve problems that stump computers

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Bidding for business

August 18, 2003
Borrowing from the sleight of hand of an 18th century Hungarian nobleman, Amazon.com has unveiled a new service that aims to leverage the power of human intelligence as a way to tackle high volumes of repeatable tasks.

The service, known as Amazon Mechanical Turk, is a marketplace where developers can post small manual tasks that are part of larger software processes. Individuals who complete the tasks are paid a small fee.

Mechanical Turk is named for Wolfgang von Kempelen's 1769 chess-playing automaton that beat nearly all challengers thanks to a human chess master hidden deep inside the so-called machine. The service is ostensibly about employing human brainpower to solve large numbers of small problems that computers are ill equipped to address.

"The premise behind Amazon Mechanical Turk is that there are certain things that human beings do better than computers," said Adam Selipsky, Amazon's vice president of product management and developer relations. "Mechanical Turk allows developers and businesses to programmatically integrate human intelligence into software applications."

As an example, Amazon's director of Web service software Peter Cohen pointed to the company's A9 search service and its yellow pages feature. That service offers users photographs of, for example, pizza restaurants near specific addresses. But he said that asking a computer to choose the best one from a number of possible images isn't practical. A person, on the other hand, could make such a decision in seconds.

And because many of the tasks posted on the marketplace can similarly be finished in seconds or minutes, the pay for them is frequently in the three-to-five cents range. But someone working to help choose pictures for A9, Cohen suggested, could earn enough money to make it worth their while over time.

And of course, Amazon hopes the marketplace will be worth its while as well. Cohen said the company will collect a 10 percent fee for brokering deals between developers and those fulfilling their tasks.

To Philipp Lenssen, the author of the blog, Google Blogoscoped, Mechanical Turk is a valuable approach to a long-standing challenge.

"In programming, there are certain types of problems which are very hard--or impossible, as of now--to solve," said Lenssen. "Take, for example, the question every child could answer: In this photo, is there a woman or a man? It would take one second for a 5-year-old. But for a computer programmer, this could become the job of a lifetime to automate."

Lenssen said he's particularly interested in Amazon's new tool because it's very similar to an idea he had proposed last March called the Collaborative Human Interpreter. The concept, he wrote at the time, was "a programming language to query a global brain, tackling previously impossible-to-automate problems."

Ultimately, he added, approaches like the Mechanical Turk or his CHI are useful because "they make available to the programmer the power of the masses."

In any case, Amazon acknowledges that the Mechanical Turk is still too new to know exactly what kind of tasks will dominate the marketplace.

The service will be driven by the unanticipated needs of people with projects that don't exist yet, leaving Cohen and Selipsky to look forward to seeing what emerges.

"It's the early days, and we want to be surprised," said Selipsky. "We expect (people) to come up with exciting and unanticipated applications."

11 comments

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Pays for books
During the time that I eat lunch at my desk I figure I can make about 2-3 dollars. at the end of the month this means I can get myself a technical book (or two) and it doesn't cost me anything plus I put it to good use. This is actually old news since it's from last Wednesday I believe

<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://sqlservercode.blogspot.com/" target="_newWindow">http://sqlservercode.blogspot.com/</a>
Posted by SqlserverCode (165 comments )
Reply Link Flag
It wont work
Microsoft might, Apple maybe, but Amazon. what doe they mean by simple problems. I think it would be lousey. Yes some things humans can do better then computers- but If i had a problem- iwould take the 4 minutes to do it instead of paying amazon a small fee......
Posted by ryanmickyv (13 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Can't Amazon find anything significant to do???
... the mental midget that came up with this idea ought to be fired
- or made CEO. He's smarter than Bezos who obviously had to
approve the idea
Posted by Earl Benser (4310 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Minimum Wage
3-5 Cents per task? Did you know it would take 130 tasks to make a minimum wage of $6.50 per hour?...talk about sweat shops...Come on Jeff Bezos...I'd rather work for McDonalds instead and all I have to do is flip burgers.

Maybe you should pay your developers that much for coming out with such non-sense???

GW
Posted by gee672 (7 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Good applications are there
I can imagine several good applications.
1. One may show pictures of a broken part in some machine (whose catalogue one does not have any more) and soemone can quickly tell the inquirer what it is and where one may find a spare part. That will save a lot of aggravation and the inquirer may be willing to pay a couple of dollars (not just cents) for information.
2. One may show pictures of weeds, discolored leaves, rotten fruits, and withering plants, stains on a carpet or furniture, or granite counter top and seek remedial advise.
3. One may show pictures of rash on one's skin and obtain curative advice.
Eventually, this can become a great application.
Posted by Dwaraka36 (42 comments )
Reply Link Flag
And who sorts out....
... the true information from the irrelevant??? It's a safe bet that
there will be tons of crap for every small jewel.
Posted by Earl Benser (4310 comments )
Link Flag
Really?
The WWW is a strange and wonderful place, but not one for sourcing critical information, such as medical diagnostics and remedies, from someone with a net-name like Dr. Bubba - especially knowing that the good "doctor" received 4 cents for his/her/its efforts. Get real.
Posted by parich1776 (13 comments )
Link Flag
Other companies had that idea before
Hi, tech-angels.net had that idea a couple of months ago, and they dont pay cents, they actually pay 5$ us per incident solved.
They are going live in the next couple of weeks.
Posted by nats (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Tech-Angels.net
Hey, an angel sent me the link to this story. Sounds like they forgot what made the net so great in the first place. Remember "get paid while you surf?" or "paid per click"? Well once the companies realized the power the internet could harness, they changed policies, changed rates, and eventually turned to close down instead of continuing what was a concept far ahead of it's time.

Tech-Angels.net harnesses the collective credited services of technicians and qualified dabblers and pays them a lot more than pennies. In fact, just to start each successful incident closed is $5.00us. Imagine a customer has the need to get a virus cleared up. A hijacked start page. Easy tasks, real money.

Unlike Amazon who is simply "dabbling" in such concepts, we will be taking our offline business online and sharing the potential with everyone in the world. The more successful our "angels" make tech-angels.net customers, the more we pay. Check out <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.tech-angels.net/" target="_newWindow">http://www.tech-angels.net/</a> for ground floor information or feel free to email me with any questions: info@tech-angels.net
Posted by Grark (1 comment )
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your 2 cents
well this seems like the right place to give my 2 cents worth. considering thats all this article points out.
think of the vauluable information people can pass along. how many times have you stopped someone from sharing their 2cents.
Now there is a chance to be given 2 cents, for your 2 cents, and people criticize. Sure the world isnt going to be honest about it, but what is it honest about, with time this will be pulled off. one step toward borg. (rele bad trek joke sry)
Posted by jjnk--2008 (3 comments )
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