Jonathan Zittrain

The original Mechanical Turk -- a fake chess playing machine -- is one of the more notorious hoaxes in history in that it fooled a lot of smart people for a long period of time. Designed to impress a Habsburg Empress, the "machine" beat many famous human opponents in chess, including Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin. It was revealed in the 1820s, however, that the Mechanical Turk was not a machine at all. A human chess master was hidden inside, doing all of the work. 

Amazon's Mechanical Turk, a "tiny arm of the Amazon octopus," as Jonathan Zittrain puts it, aspires to the same goal. This crowdsourcing platform is described as artificial artificial intelligence. In other words, it aims to use human intelligence to do the work that one day a computer might do. Mechanical Turk assigns HITs, or Human Intelligence Tasks, out to the world, often priced at a penny. A task might involve labeling a photograph. Amazingly, there are thousands of people who "turk," and these micro-laborers tend to turk for many hours. 

Why is this "digital sweatshop" so addictive? Jonathan Zittrain, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School and author of the book The Future of the Internet and How to Stop Itsuggests that "grad students will do this all day long because it's probably the only source of positive feedback in their lives."

In a fascinating and humorous talk, Zittrain described Mechanical Turk as a crowdsourcing tool that can solve problems big and small. Motivated by simple rewards, collective intelligence can be harnessed to create huge stores of accurate, useful data (as opposed to computer-generated nonsense). It can even be used to solve crime.

But this is also a cautionary tale. The micro-laborers are, after all, disconnected from the end product they are creating. Amazon offers Mechanical Turk as a service to all sorts of businesses. And beyond Amazon's marketplace, the same crowd-sourcing technique could easily be used by say, the Iranian government to identify political dissidents. 

Watch Zittrain's talk here. 

Jonathan is a Harvard triple threat as a professor of law, computer science, and the co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society.  His book-The Future of The Internet and How to Stop It, was published in 2008 and explains how, “The Internet’s current trajectory is one of lost opportunity.”  Zittrain is considered an Internet Phenomenon and is highly sought after to speak about the ethical questions that continually arise from the internet culture of today.

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