Outsourcing cerebral activity – new services platforms enable innovative entrepreneurial ventures

Surfing cyberspace is a wonderful example of the combination of (a) complex path dependency on initial conditions (your favorites) and topical attractors (your interests) resulting in the free will based realization of informational opportunities and (b) serendipity. When I read Tim O’Reilley’s comments regarding the essential characteristics of what he dubbed Web 2.0 I followed his reference to some amazon services (Simple Storage Service – S3; and Elastic Compute Cloud – EC2), which in his understanding represent the true innovation happening in the web 2.0 – services based on improved data and meta-data management and exploitation. While both services are very interesting and innovative they might be considered to give us a glimpse into what computing and storage might look like in the future. Yet it was another service pioneered by amazon that truly blows my imagination – the mechanical turk.

Introduced with and named after a true historical curiosity, the mechanical turk is the first service I know of the practically exploits artificial artificial intelligence. The story is to good to be kept from you:

In 1769, Hungarian nobleman Wolfgang von Kempelen astonished Europe by building a mechanical chess-playing automaton that defeated nearly every opponent it faced. A life-sized wooden mannequin,adorned with a fur-trimmed robe and a turban, Kempelen’s “Turk” was seated behind a cabinet and toured Europe confounding such brilliant challengers as Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte. To persuade skeptical audiences, Kempelen would slide open the cabinet’s doors to reveal the intricate set of gears, cogs and springs that powered his invention. He convinced them that he had built a machine that made decisions using artificial intelligence. What they did not know was the secret behind the mechanical Turk: a chess master cleverly concealed inside. [1]

Embodying the ‘we don’t take ourselves too serious’ attitude of web-business, amazon named its platform, that enables customers to outsource services that need either really advanced artificial intelligence or – as we are not there yet – artificial artificial (a.k.a. human) intelligence, mechanical turk.

Basically the idea is that you write a description of a task that is – by now – not solvable by computers (e.g. to judge whether there is a human individual visible on a number of photographs) and then you pay people to invest their time and brainpower to solve that task (paying e.g. one cent per picture analyzed). One interesting modality is that the customer posting the assignment has the right to define and assess completion (payment) criteria. This might not be to controversial when we speak about the correct verification whether there is a human on the picture or not, but when the completion criteria is defined as ‘writing an INTELLIGENT message’ evaluation of submitted results might differ.


Human Intelligence Tasks – HIT Examples

Allow me to present three short examples to illustrate what kind of ”jobs” can be found or, maybe more relevant for entrepreneurs inspirations, for what artificial artificial intelligence might be used for:

Visual services – e.g. Geospatial tagging

On the low end of the spectrum one can earn 5 cent for tagging 50 images (frames from a video) of traffic sceneries recorded by a driving car. The job is rather simple: one marks the side- and middle-lines of the street as well as all other road markings by following them with the mouse (as drawing a line in a drawing program).

When I tested it, it took me 5 minutes to mark 10 images which means if I had the motivation I could have earned 5 cent in 25 minutes. Given that one probably gets faster with the time lets say it’s possible to do it in 15 min. That means 20 cent per hour or about one dollar fifty a day. That sounds awful to me but for someone extremely poor in a developing country it might be interesting. (I am definitely doubtful about the ethical component though.)

Conversational Services – e.g. Market research

In the middle range of the assignments we find things like market research. For calling a women’s fashion shop and asking them some questions about a particular product one can earn the respectful sum of 50 cent. In the case that I reviewed the task was to ask about Coach’s new coated canvas handbags. Being very incompetent about women’s handbags I googled them and it turns out that according to the stock market information page seekingalfa Goldman Sachs assesses that “Coach’s Hot New Handbags Make Its Stock More Attractive”. I guess that can count as indication that entrepreneurial and successful firms are already exploiting the innovative service.

Creative services – e.g. publicity authoring

On the upper end of services brokered at the mechanical turk we find for example requests for the creation of blog posts or posts to newsgroups about a specific product or website. One can e.g. earn 1$ for writing an “INTELLIGENT message” reviewing the content and services of http://blog.lightiris.com/. While this example seems to be a rather dull complement to the SPAM messages already flooding the internet, one can easily imagine other more legitimate services based on human creativity that could be brokered on an artificial artificial intelligence platform.


The examples above represent but three instances of services that can be framed to be dealt with by this new kind of platform. I have attempted to classify the essential value creation aspect of the services using three categories and I could imagine that it would be a well worth effort to distill the conceptual patterns and build an artificial artificial intelligence service taxonomy. As a first shot I could identify the following classes: visual pattern recognition (image tagging), audio-pattern recognition (e.g. pod-cast transcription), information extraction (finding and extracting info from contracts, documents, etc.), conversational services (phone calls) , creative services (take a photo, or website promotion), evaluation services (restaurant review).

Considerations about how to set the mechanical turk in context

Now that you have a first impression of what is happening at the mechanical turk right now, I will set the platform in relation to two other services and finally develop a vision of what this might lead to.

The first service that I had to think of when trying to theorize on the turks essentials was www.Innocentive.com. In short Innocentive is a platform where companies post research problems that they can not – do not want to – solve by their own and the price they are willing to pay for a solution. Through the platform scientist are asked to come up with the solution, and the first who comes up with a functional solution receives the price-money (between $10,000 to $100,000).

The second somehow similar service that came to mind is www.exchange-me.de one implementation improving traditional barter networks (“I repair your computer and you teach me Chinese in return”) by making the offer discovery (the equivalent of economic price discovery) more efficient.

Now what do these three services have in common? They are all providing mechanisms (interfaces) to sell knowledge/intelligence. The three implementations are very different: the mechanical turk is mostly used for tasks requiring low-competence, while Innocentive is aimed at solving intellectually/scientifically challenges, and the barter networks follow a different logic as they neglect money as mechanism to enable value interchangeability. Nevertheless they share the characteristic of using the internet to facilitate price and offer discovery for knowledge based services.

The platforms are by no means employing the modus operandi nor the same finality. In fact their modus operandi might be considered to be in competition while their finalities (getting a simple intellectual task done, finding a more or less standard (knowledge) service, and solving problems to innovation) are complementary. Whatsoever, knowledge based services are being framed and sold on these platforms in strikingly innovative ways. And new classification and exchange modalities as well as practices are likely to emerge. As always when the winds of change and creative destruction are blowing entrepreneurial opportunities arise. I will attempt to keep you informed on how it develops.

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