Infinite Machines: 3 — Turking Interfaces

At its peak, the 18th century Mechanical Turk toured the world; leaving audiences in awe at its seemingly advanced ability to beat opponents in chess. It only became publicly known after decades the Turk had a human chess master below who would manipulate the machine to make moves on their behalf. Over two centuries later in 2017, Google’s AlphaGo beat the world’s best Go player with no human intervention. In this case, the core technology evolved from human to machine, but personas were constructed along the way to disguise human labor behind the interface.

Beyond entertainment, this type of persona construction extends to humans used for service labor. As trains became commercialized in the 1860’s, black porters were known as George’s amongst passengers. This name comes from George Pullman, manufacturer of the Pullman Sleeper car. The George, similar to the Turk, functioned as a mask to human identities. Though George’s (as an interface) represented a deeper charade of power relationships.

Amazon adopted the Mechanical Turk name for one of their platforms, and it has since grown to be the world’s largest online workforce, comprising roughly 500,000 contract-based employees around the world. These ‘turkers’ help researchers and tech companies bring structure to unstructured data and train AI; with activities ranging from spotting fake news to filling out surveys. While it’s known that humans are behind the interface, they’re represented only as a string of letters and numbers to requestors.

In Finland, the Criminal Sanctions Agency is partnering with Vainu, an enterprise SaaS tech company, to employ prisoners as ‘turkers’ to validate data that will help organizations arrive at more comprehensive business decisions. While the company boasts the prisoners are gaining transferable skills, the dissonance between the worlds of the end user and prisoner blur the lines of where the human labor ends and the machine begins.

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About James Vanié

James is a writer and design strategist. Tweets at @jamesvanie.


  1. Going to try something new, and transfer a discussion thread here that developed on Twitter where Venkat referenced this blogchain post:

    Conversation [… = continuation tweet by same user]

    Venkatesh Rao @vgr Aug 11
    A ladder of assertions about abilities of your rival X

    1. X can’t do it
    2. X can do it, but not as well as us
    3. X can do it as well, maybe better, but not innovate
    4. X can innovate, but only incremental, not bold leaps
    5. X can bold-leap but no moral compass so will fail

    The interesting is that X = China and X = AI are basically identical arguments. By the time you get to Stage 5, you’re essentially arguing “the gods are on our side”.

    There’s a Stage 6 after you’ve already lost:

    6. The indomitable _________ spirit

    Blank = [human, western] etc

    Chris Beiser @ctbeiser Aug 11
    This coherence (as well as “Chinese AI” hysteria) is founded on a long history of Western thinkers understanding China as AI.

    (Ex—why is it the “Chinese room”?)

    The two concepts have been tied together so tightly they’re largely indistinguishable.
    Sinofuturism (1839 – 2046 AD)
    “Sinofuturism is an invisible movement. A spectre already embedded into a trillion industrial products, a billion individuals, and a million veiled narratives.…

    Alex Schleber 👽👌 @AlexSchleber Aug 12
    very interesting, I’ve long been a fan of trying to gain understanding/value from viewing other humans acting as basically AI (G or no G…), e.g. Uber drivers are their proto-#selfdriving cars asf.

    Chris Beiser @ctbeiser 21h
    it sounds like you’ve just invented dehumanizing service workers??

    Alex Schleber @AlexSchleber
    Ouchie, that’s not the intention at all really (even though Venkat admittedly speaks of things like “UNDER the api”, & people are by and large worried about being replaced by AI). I use this in the sense of ML having given us deeper insights into human mind/brain functioning

    E.g. it taught us that finite games stuff, previously highly prized by humanity, was ultimately computationally trivial relatively speaking. That the GAI that is even a “mere” delivery driver is the greater marvel

    Many fear the ML/AI among other things for its inscrutability, when of course human deepest reasons & motivations are often similarly opaque. Say a non-AI algo running FB feeds: We know it ultimately has some sort of (shareholder-)profit-maximising intent, but beyond that?

    What I mean is, we already deal w these v large scale egregoric systems/co’s, & they might as well be an AI as far as the interface “mask” aspect is concerned. I suspect only reason people don’t freak out about it is the (prob false?!) sense that a co could still be controlled

    …That they could still be “shut off” if it came down to it. But a few years from now, will it still be meaningfully possible to shut off a Google, Amazon, or Apple…?

    Anyway, will add more examples as I think of/remember them.

    — [sidebranch]
    Chris Beiser @ctbeiser
    Replying to @AlexSchleber and @vgr
    it sounds like you’ve just invented dehumanizing service workers??

    Venkatesh Rao @vgr
    *** I had a guest blogchain by James Vanie going on exactly this idea.*** Sadly he abandoned it. He had a great historical take going back to all Pullman conductors being called George and economic construction of black identities back to slave era and turking. (link:

    Chris Beiser @ctbeiser
    the original mechanical turk being named such because it was given the guise of an robotic man in Ottoman robes and a turban is a bit on-the-nose really.

    Venkatesh Rao @vgr
    yeah james got into that angle briefly in his 3rd and last part before he abandoned it

    it’s like there’s 3 layers: the backend which can be algorithmic or human, the middleware which is a legibilizing structure, and the frontend which is a rehumanizing UX

    Now I’m also thinking of the “white guy frontman in China” syndrome where they hire random white tourist guy to serve as investment front-end to sell western financial institutions on china investments. Subtle forms of turking are all around us all the time.

    Zhan Li 🇪🇺🇬🇧 @thezhanly
    The “hire a white guy” practice in China is usually done by Chinese companies to sell *Chinese* customers/investors on China investments. The white frontmen (& women) would likely be too easily found out by fellow Westerners anyway.