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Human face of Mechanical Turk

With all the talk about Artificial Intelligence you'd be forgiven for thinking that the world was on the brink of a Terminator-style takeover.

Thankfully, true AI is still a long way off, and there are a great many tasks that humans can simply do better. These tend to be whatever requires any sort of imagination or feeling. AI can be trained to recognise brands in photos, but it can’t tell you if the picture is of a rowdy night out, or a cuddle in front of the sofa.

Amazon encountered this problem when trying to provide worthwhile recommendations after a product was bought. To solve it, it built its ‘Mechanical Turk’ service. This allowsyou to send instructions about a simple task to thousands of people globally, who will complete it, and return their response. The innovation is that Amazon lets you treat these people as though they were an AI — meaning text or photos can be coded, or audio transcribed, at very large scale. In fact, many of the ‘automated’ services providing translation, coding or recommendations aren’t using AI at all — just lots and lots of people.


Niall Smith
Director, SketchBook

This article was first published in InBrief magazine, November 2017
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2017