This week was mainly spent working on assignment 2 for the Research Methods course.  I will admit, I got lucky, a few people who have taken this paper in the past have told me that the hardest part of this assignment was actually uncovering an academic paper that met all the criteria required, was the correct length, was actually legible to a normal human and was actually available for free.  The paper that I had found for the practice post has been spot on, and I thought for a moment that I could maybe recycle it and hope that Clare didn’t notice, I opted, however, to leave this course of action as my emergency escape, if I couldn’t find a decent paper.

So, off I headed to Google Scholar, I had a few ideas of what I was interested in, couldn’t quite nail down a paper that fit all of the criteria:  good – but too short, great – but not available, awesome abstract – incomprehensible body.  Just as I was thinking I should head back to old faithful I uncovered a gem of a paper written by a team of scholars from Carnegie Mellon University.  It fit the bill perfectly and it was a good read to boot.

So why is this post called ‘The Mechanical Turk’, which Turk are we talking about and what has he got to do with a paper from Carnegie Mellon University?  Well, in part of the paper the researchers used an Amazon web service called MTurk.  MTurk is named after an ingenious machine from the 18th Century that was known as The Mechanical Turk, or just ‘The Turk’ to people who knew it, or him.  So who was ‘The Turk’

the turk

The Mechanical Turk was a chess playing machine that was created in 1770. For 84 glorious years the machine toured Europe and the Americas challenging, and generally defeating, the greatest chess players of the day. the Turk even reputedly played Napoleon.  The Turk very seldom lost a game, and if a player tried to play an invalid move, the Turk would angrily knock the pieces from the board with a sweep of his hand.

The Turk was eventually revealed to be an elaborate hoax, inside the box a chess master was hidden who was able to control the figure and the pieces on the board from remotely, however the Automaton had fooled some of the greatest minds in the world for 84 years.

So why did Amazon name MTurk after this machine?  Well the Mechanical Turk was machine that appeared to operate as a machine, however, the task at hand was actually too complex for machines of the era and so a human secretly carried out the complex task, in this case playing chess.

MTurk is somewhat the same, it has been set up so that users can submit a task to be completed, a task that is relatively simple but requires a level of intelligence or comprehension that has yet to be mastered by generic computer systems, a task that requires, well basically…   a human brain.

So users send tasks to Mturk (there are currently over 770,000 tasks to choose from), and ‘Turks’ select and process them.  The Turks are paid a fee based on the complexity of the task and the time it is expected to take.  One of the most popular tasks is reading data from cashier receipts and entering it into boxes, it pays about 3 cents per receipt, you could probably earn about $6 an hour if you were good at it. Not great in NZ, however that’s probably a half decent wage in India, all someone needs to be a Turk is an internet connection and a reasonable amount of common sense.

On the outside its just a giant data processing machine, but it makes use of ‘the crowd’, pretty cool.

One of the coolest spinoffs from MTurk is called

Its an Internet Search and Rescue Service.  What the hell!! I hear you cry.  Well it dates back to an event in 2007 when Adventurer Steve Fosset went missing in his plane in Nevada, MTurk set up a search of very recent Google Earth satellite images to try and locate the missing aircraft.  Thousands of Turks scoured the images looking for something that could be crash debris.  The Turks didn’t find the crash site in the end, it was a much more conventional group of hikers that stumbled across it about a year later. However, not to be put off by this setback, the nerds formed Internet SAR and offer their services if requested (and provided with current imagery) by SAR Agencies around the world.