Industry News

Amazon’s Mechanical Jerk

Can you find the midget?

Amazon is playing a trick on the world!

Amazon has a new service (still heavily in beta.. based on how many page errors I get trying to use it) called Mechanical Turk with the tag line “Artificial Artificial Intelligence.”

The name is a reference to a “chess-playing automaton” built in 1769 by Wolfgang von Kempelen, which looked like a robot that could play chess and went around beating a lot of really good chess players, including one guy now on the hundred dollar bill! This was a pretty amazing feat for 1769, and in fact would still have been amazing for 1869, 1969, or even 1999.. if not for the fact the Mechanical Turk turned out to have, just like R2D2, a tiny little human enclosed inside it! And like R2D2, that little dude was really good at playing chess.

Amazon’s new service is sort of like the mechanical turk… for the Internet. You submit a problem you want solved (along with how much you’d pay for the answer), and they display it to real live humans who answer it for the money (minus Amazon’s cut). There’s an API for it, so as long as you’re willing to pay (and wait a few hours), you can now have a program solve problems that computers can’t solve!

Right now, it seems there aren’t too many applications for this outside of the realm of image processing… in fact as far as I can see the ONLY people who’re actually using it so far are Amazon themselves! They’re currently paying people three cents an image to help populate their BlockView service with clear pictures of the front of businesses.

Welcome to Atlanta.

(It’s kind of funny going through some of their BlockView images. You see, they just drive a van around town and take pictures out of the window every few feet or so, then tie them to the gps location of the van and create an online film-strip of city blocks in major cities. Going through the mechanical turk thing you’re provided with a string of like eight adjacent images and the name of a business they think should be in one of the pictures. You just have to click the image that best shows that business (or none of the above), and they’ll pay you three cents. I figured going super-fast I can make about $5.40/hour doing this. Which isn’t worth my time, but considering you’re reading this, is probably worth yours! After doing it for a while I started thinking some of the completely random photographs were a little bit artsy so I saved a couple.

Professional art critic, I am not.)

Anyway, this is sort of an interesting service, and it got me thinking:

IF you could develop a program that can do something no other program in the world (or at least no program at Amazon) has been able to, you could set it to work at and make a bunch of money automatically!

Of course, if you can develop a program that can do something no other program in the world can do, you’re probably already doing pretty well for yourself.

IF there’s no way for a computer to do what these humans are doing, how do you automatically verify that the solutions people are putting in aren’t just random garbage (possibly even generated by a computer!)

The solution Amazon came up with is just that the person who submitted the request has to approve the solution in order for you to get paid. Which to me seems like missing half the point. I mean, if the task is simple for humans but difficult for computers, you’d think that just verifying a solution is going to take nearly as long as solving the problem in the first place!

I’m not sure a good way to solve that problem, besides maybe submitting the request to lots of people and then taking some sort of “average” answer. But then the issue is, how much do you pay everybody? Would the reward be split among all the people who submitted a correct response? People wouldn’t be too keen on answering questions when they didn’t kno how much they were going to get paid to provide a correct response!

Nonetheless, there must be a few good applications for this sort of thing.. one I can think of off the top of my head that we’d love to have work somehow is technical support!

Welcome to Austin.

You see, support is a huuuuge cost in web hosting. For us, our monthly support team costs are over three times as much as our entire data center (including bandwidth)! Put another way, the breakdown of our ongoing cost to provide web hosting with support is about 25% the web hosting and 75% the support.

So, anything that cuts down on support (or the cost of handling support) is verrry interesting to us! I think it was about six years ago when I first started dreaming “If only there were some way to get our customers answering each other!” We’d be happy to pay them fairly for satisfactory answers too, it’d just be nice to have less overhead and scheduling and possibly even better support when we have a talent pool of the whole world.

There were a lot of issues with trying something like this though.

Without any access to sensitive customer data, they would only be able to answer the easiest of support messages. The fact that they don’t really work for us would at best bring up quality issues, and at worse scams against naive customers. Also, if people were paid to answer support messages, would they figure out a way to game the system and submit false messages for themselves to answer? What if our competitors start answering all our messages with nasty swear words?!

In the end, we never really came up with very good answers to these questions, and so the idea never came to fruition. If only we’d thrown the idea around a little more and made a service like Amazon has, we could have taken the profits and just spent it on more tech support employees!

Oh, and by the way, by reading this article, you just wasted $1.38 you could have made by simply clicking images!

Ha ha ha ha ha hah!

Hee hee!


About the author

Josh Jones