Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Man vs. Machine: Winner Take All?

Will people always remain superior to computers? Or does your paranoia of a global A.I. takeover resemble Will Smith’s in I, Robot? A quick search on google resulted in 12,100,000 hits for “computers will take over the world” and 12,800,000 hits for “computers will not take over the world.” My search was hardly scientific (and there was much overlap between results), but for the moment, let’s take solace in knowing that for now, we’re leading the robots by 700,000 hits.

Of course, there also exists the possibility of co-existence where the best of human and computer abilities are utilized for cooperation rather than competition. According to Amazon’s description of its subsidiary, Mechanical Turk, people “significantly outperform the most powerful computers at completing such simple tasks as identifying objects in photographs.” Computers, on the other hand, are better at “storing and retrieving large amounts of information or rapidly performing calculations.” This is easily demonstrated by conducting a Google Image search. The search engine will come up with thousands of images containing any relevance to your search terms, but our human eyes are able to quickly scan the page and determine whether the images contain exactly what we’re looking for.

It’s for this reason that crowdsourcing sites such as Mechanical Turk and ChaCha have cropped up in recent years. The concept is simple – computers are great, but can’t do everything perfectly; enter Average Joe who picks up the slack, all for a few pennies a day! Excuse my sarcasm, but I find it appalling that a human intelligence task, or HIT, yields only a few cents in compensation. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a huge fan of similar sites such as Wikipedia or Yahoo! Answers that allow people to contribute their thoughts or answer questions in an open format for the good of mankind (and maybe a bit of internet fame). But to pay people PENNIES per task is just sad. I once did a brief stint as an editor for Harley Davidson shop reports. People all over the country would visit the H-D store and submit a report on their experience; I would then edit it for content, consistency, grammar, etc. The job paid by the report, but not too much, so I was forced to edit a large number of reports to make this worthwhile. It wasn’t a primary source of income, but I was in college at the time and figured the extra cash couldn’t hurt. Eventually, though, the fear of worsened eyesight (plus animosity towards those who wrote so poorly) forced me to say goodbye to Harley Davidson. What’s frustrating about Mechanical Turk is that many people (particularly contributors from developing nations) probably don’t have the luxury of quitting, so I can’t help but wonder whether Jeff Bezos (creator of Mechanical Turk) couldn’t afford to pay a bit more per HIT. Or maybe I’m just being sentimental, which makes me suspect I stand no chance against future robot domination…


Dara said...

At FunAdvice, we agree about the audacity of payment for much of the advice given at other sites. To fight this, we gave users the opportunity to link their accounts to Adsense in order to get revenue. Unfortunately, the abuse was so great we had to shut down the program. People will always self-destruct, I'm afraid.

FunAdvice Profile

Bryan said...

It is a rather sentimental outlook, but I think if the market demands more than a few penniesfor their HITs, than an organization (such as FunAdvice) will come along and offer a higher return. I agree that it should be more currently, but if there are those who are willing to participate at such a low return, than the market really isn't screaming for more than pennies.