Amazon Mechanical Turk

Amazon Mechanical Turk is a web service application program interface (API) that allows developers to integrate human intelligence into remote procedure calls (RPC).

Amazon Mechanical Turk is a web service application program interface (API) that allows developers to integrate human intelligence into remote procedure calls (RPC). Amazon Mechanical Turk uses a network of humans to perform tasks that computers are ill-suited for. Amazon calls tasks that are difficult for computers but easy for humans HITS (human intelligence tasks). A person completing a HIT might be asked to write a product description, respond to a mobile voice search query or choose the best photograph of a single subject. 

Here’s how it works: When a user makes a request, the application sends that request to a human being who has contracted to work on a per-task basis. The human being enters a response and the service returns it to the requester. Turk workers are paid for each successfully completed HIT. Amazon profits by charging the requester 10 percent of the price of a successfully completed HIT. 

Mechanical Turk gets its name from an 18th century chess-playing automaton that toured Europe and played against luminaries of the day, including Napoleon and Ben Franklin. Before each performance, audience members were allowed to inspect Mechanical Turk to view its many functioning gears and levers. However, like all good magic, the Turk was an illusion. A real person hiding in a secret compartment manipulated the Turk and played the chess game.

Amazon chose the name Mechanical Turk for their web service because the human intelligence is hidden from the end user to make the service seem automated.  

See also: crowdsourcing

Learn more about IT

Visit the Amazon Mechanical Turk website to learn more about the service. 

Hungarian nobleman Wolfgang von Kempelen invented the original mechanical Turk. Ruth Halfen explains how it worked.

Jason Potin provides an overview of Mechanical Turk and other crowdsourcing APIs in Artificial Intelligence, With Help From the Humans.

This was first published in July 2009

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