Back in the mid-18th century, Hungarian author and inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen amazed audiences with what appeared to be a chess-playing automaton. Called the Mechanical Turk, it consisted of a wooden box with whirring gears and a mannequin dressed like a Turk, whose hand deftly moved pieces across the board, beating most of its human opponents.
Of course, the Turk was really controlled by a human being—a chess master, in fact—hidden within the box along with a second chessboard linked to the first with magnets. The Mechanical Turk was just an ingenious hoax, one that fooled many gullible souls.
I find it surprising, and rather creepy, that over two hundred years later some of our most advanced computers have resorted to employing human beings in almost the same way. A cheekily named Web services platform, Amazon Mechanical Turk, gives computers the ability to dole out their menial tasks to Internet users across the globe. Wait a minute: Weren't computers supposed to be doing all those menial tasks? Indeed they were. But try getting a computer to figure out whether a particular photograph is of a barbershop or an ice cream parlor. Some tasks that are simple for humans can nonetheless confound a supercomputer.
That's why the Amazon Turk system parcels out these countless human intelligence tasks, or "HITs," to willing laborers for pennies per piece. Got an Internet connection and some extra time? Hire yourself out to one of the many companies whose own computers need your human brain to complete their duties. As I write this, there are HITs available for everything from finding the address numbers in photos of houses (three cents a pop) to matching Web page URLs with the product that is supposed to appear on them (a whopping nickel each).
While this artificial artificial intelligence may nudge computers beyond their current limitations, it is unsettling to imagine a scenario in which people are assigned tasks in the same way a microchip farms out cycles to its coprocessors. In the 1950s, visionaries imagined that technology would create a society where work would be limited to the few tasks we didn't want our machines doing for us. The vast majority of our time was to be spent at leisure—not in boredom, racking up three-cent HITs on our PCs.
Just as companies outsource to humans the tasks that computers cannot complete, we can outsource the monotony of keystrokes to other people. Sweatshops arose in Asia to glue soles to our sneakers; now digital sweatshops are populated by Chinese laborers who perform the computer tasks that those of us in wealthier nations don't have time to do. There is so much extra processing needed that a single factory may hold several hundred workers who sit behind terminals in round-the-clock shifts.
Amazingly, this work is not limited to data entry or crunching numbers. Workers nowadays are paid to play computer games. In one of the more bizarre human-machine relationships I've yet come across, Chinese workers play the boring parts of online games that Westerners don't want to bother with—all the tiny tasks that a player's fictional character must perform in order to earn virtual cash within a game world. Then players in the United States use real money to buy the play money generated by the factory workers.
That's right: People who love playing in online game worlds will buy game money over eBay from digital sweatshops in China instead of earning it. With millions of people now participating in games like Second Life and World of Warcraft, the practice has become commonplace. There are even published exchange rates between game money and U.S. dollars.
Although I tend to shudder at this, there's a generation of young computer enthusiasts who see a golden opportunity here. Instead of selling virtual cash to lazy adults, they figure, why not sell more interesting creations from within an online game? These games give players the opportunity to design their own homes, build businesses, and even fashion their characters' physical appearance. Such projects are time-consuming and require skill and creativity. So a kid who has the imagination to construct a beautiful virtual house can sell it—for physical cash—to a businessman who wants a snazzy residence for his virtual character. It's like hiring someone to shoot your tee shots for you. But it's also downright inspiring to watch a bottom-up entertainment economy flourish in a society where—thanks to technology—most essential services may soon be provided with just a fraction of the population actively employed at any given moment.
Then, just as those early visionaries predicted, the rest of us will get paid to play.