The Amazing Amazon Mechanical Turk

Clive over at Collision Detection reports on the new Amazon service called Amazon Mechanical Turk, which allows companies to hire (via Amazon) “Turks” who, in their spare time, do seemingly mindless tasks online, for example, tag photographs of shoes according to color. The tasks are mindless–but only for humans who have minds. For computers, the tasks are monumental. AI and visual pattern recognition just hasn’t reached this stage yet. Anyone can sign up as a “Turk” and whenever they have a spare moment at their cubicle, click away and earn as much as $30 a day.

What intrigues me most about this service is the name: Amazon Mechanical Turk. This is a nod to a famous 18th century hoax. As Amazon explains:

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 human chess master cleverly concealed inside.

I had heard of this story before…from the German critic Walter Benjamin. In his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Benjamin writes:

The story is told of an automaton constructed in such a way that it could play a winning game of chess, answering each move of an opponent with a countermove. A puppet in Turkish attire and with a hookah in its mouth sat before a chessboard placed on a large table. A system of mirrors created the illusion that this table was transparent from all sides. Actually, a little hunchback who was an expert chess player sat inside and guided the puppet’s hand by means of strings.

Benjamin goes on to compare this “automaton” to a certain view of history, which fails to see through the illusions that veil the real mechanisms of power.

I’m no conspiracy theorist and I see no conspiracy here. But I can’t help but gleefully wonder if some coder at Amazon was familiar with this Benjamin passage, and that the name of Amazon’s version of artificial artificial intelligence was inspired by a vision of a Turkish puppet smoking a hookah.