An article today reminded me of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which I’ve been meaning to look at for a while.
The idea behind the Mechanical Turk (named after a clever 18th-century scam) is that there are some tasks that are tough to perform computationally, but are very simple for humans…recognizing things in photographs, answering questions about personal experiences, etc. Amazon calls those things “Human Intelligence Tasks,” and it provides an online marketplace for getting them done: A Requester posts a task and a price that he’s willing to pay for it (”Tell me if the person in this picture looks happy, and I’ll give you $0.01.”), and a Worker can choose to perform the task for that price. (Side-question: Does this sound evil? Wikipedia says that some criticize the system as being a “virtual sweatshop,” and I can see the point, but it goes on to say that some people perform these tasks as a hobby. Assuming no-evil, I continue:)
Amazon provides an Application Programmer’s Interface to its MTurk system, which means that I can write a program that submits a task request, gets responses, and pays the people who respond…all automatically. Which sounds awesome, I love the idea of having an automatic system that marshals small motes of human effort, but I’m stuck for a good idea for a simple project.
Here’s one idea that assumes a much quicker turnaround-time than is probably reasonable:
- Say I want my computer to intelligently answer verbal questions of the form “Computer: What’s the best thing about a summer day?”
- I write a program that’s always listening for the word “Computer,” and then records everything that I say until the next pause.
- The program takes the audio-file that contains my question and posts it as an MTurk task, “Please answer this question for $1.00.”
- Someone sees the task and answers with text that says “I have never once been hit in the head by a summer day.”
- My computer is notified of the answer, authorizes the payment of $1.00, and uses text-to-speech to read the answer to me.
That’s pretty cute, but it depends on someone answering the question quickly and I don’t know if that expectation is reasonable. Although now I want to spend a dollar just to see.
So: Anyone have any cute ideas? There has to be something creative to do here; something that provides a programmatic window into human whimsy.