Welcome to the bloggy home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Percolate and general internet tinkerer. This site is about media, culture, technology, and randomness. It's been around since 2004 (I'm pretty sure). Feel free to get in touch. Get in touch.

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Mechanical Turk + Twitter

So it turns out Quora, the new question/answer service that keeps popping up, has set up Twitter accounts for most of its popular topics. That’s not necessarily revolutionary, except for the number of feeds they have and the way they’re setting them up. Turns out they’re using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to create new accounts, as there is no way to do it programmatically. This is interesting to me for two reasons: First, I’ve been obsessed with Mechanical Turk for a long time and second, it speaks to what I think the service has eventually become.

I first learned of the service in this 2007 Wired article about the search for Jim Gray, who was lost at sea. “Launched in 2005, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk is a service that enables employers to hire online workers for short-term tasks that computers don’t do well. If a city government wants to count its utility-pole inventory, for instance, it can pay netsurfers a pittance (in dollars or rupees) to click through thousands of street-level photographs, tagging the poles they see. Spotting Tenacious [Jim Gray’s boat] in a sea of gray seemed like the perfect test of MTurk’s ‘artificial artificial intelligence.'” This was forever etched in my mind as the perfect use of MTurk: Giving people a task that computers couldn’t easily handle.

However, I’ve since read (can’t seem to remember where at the moment), that many are struggling to get useful results out of the service as people come on to game the system and just rush through tasks like looking at a picture and identifying an object. If someone needs to go back and check work the service obviously loses value. Which leads us to what Quora is doing, which is essentially something that is programmatic (setting up new accounts), but isn’t available via Twitter’s API (for very obvious spam reasons). So essentially they’re hiring a bunch of people to go solve CAPTCHAs (which is the one part of the sign up process a computer can’t do). The beauty of this sort of task in the MTurk system is that it’s binary: The account is either set up or it’s not.

I’m not quite sure what my point is with all this other than to say that I think it’s fascinating that the two most interesting uses I’ve heard of for the service are art (where there is no right answer and no need to check work) and tasks like setting up accounts. Hmmm …

December 1, 2010