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Amazon patents cybernetic mind-meld

April 04, 2007

As noted by Slashdot, Amazon.com was on March 27 granted a broad patent for computer systems that incorporate human beings into automated data processing - the type of cybernetic arrangement that underpins the company's Mechanical Turk service. With Mechanical Turk, a software programmer can write into a program a task that is difficult for a computer to do but easy for a person to carry out, such as identifying objects in photographs. At the point in the program when the "human input" is required, the task is posted to Amazon's Mechanical Turk website where people carry it out for a small payment. The human input is then funneled back to the computer running the program.

The patent, as Amazon describes it, covers "a hybrid machine/human computing arrangement which advantageously involves humans to assist a computer to solve particular tasks, allowing the computer to solve the tasks more efficiently." It specifies several applications of such a system, including speech recognition, text classification, image recognition, image comparison, speech comparison, transcription of speech, and comparison of music samples. Amazon also notes that "those skilled in the art will recognize that the invention is not limited to the embodiments described."

The patent, which reads like an instruction manual from a dystopian future, goes into great detail about how the system might work in evaluating the skills and performance of the "human operated nodes." The system might, for example, want to classify the human workers according to whether they are "college educated, at most high school educated, at most elementary school educated, [or] not formally educated." It also lays out an example of the system incorporating "multiple humans" to carry out a particular subtask, "each of the humans being identified as being capable of satisfying at least some of the associated criteria for the [subtask]," and then synthesizing a result from their combined inputs.

The patent would appear to be a brilliant hedging strategy by Amazon. There may come a time when humans are so busy carrying out menial tasks for computer systems that they have neither the time nor the money to buy books and other goods online. If so, Amazon can still look forward to earning hefty licensing fees on its patented system, which could emerge as the central engine of the post-human economy.


"... a time when humans are so busy carrying out menial tasks for computer systems ..."

This is called "Being an assembly-line worker"
(maybe it should be rebranded "citizen-laborer" ...)

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 4, 2007 11:39 AM

I would think that various spammers have prior art on this, harnessing people to defeat CAPTCHAs and rewarding them with porn, etc.

Posted by: eas [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 4, 2007 01:18 PM

I still don't understand how the tasks completed by humans are verified in these systems. Obviously not by a computer. So unless we're talking about a very specific type of task, where you can calculate some kind of checksum and verify many results at once, I can't see a general principle...

Posted by: dare [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 4, 2007 04:16 PM

Dare, one approach is to submit the same task to two humans. If the results agree, then you verify the task for both, and pay both. If not, you repeat until consensus is reached, or you can escalate to a trusted arbiter.

Posted by: eas [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 4, 2007 05:10 PM

It's not entirely clear to me how this is different than any example of a human using a computer. I'm sure my computer would like to do my taxes for me without me having to lift a finger, but it still needs me to type some information from paper statements into text boxes. Are the fine people behind TurboTax going to run afoul of this patent for creating a system that automates tax filing, but requires human interaction to solve some things that computers aren't good at (opening mail and performing OCR on semi-standardized printed forms)?

Posted by: Anthony Cowley [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 4, 2007 05:45 PM

Human computation, the industrial way !!

It all started with captcha (eas // is correct) and was leverage by the ESP Games. As always Amazon is patenting the all idea ... and probably as for the one-click shop or the collaborative filtering it's gonna be a huge patent fight in 2 to 5 years.

For the Man behind the smart Human Computation theory watch this :

Posted by: leafar [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 5, 2007 06:57 AM

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